Supporting & Enhancing NICU Sensory Experiences
Supporting and Enhancing NICU Sensory Experiences (SENSE) is a comprehensive approach to ensuring multi-modal positive sensory exposures across hospitalization for high-risk infants in the NICU. The SENSE program provides education to engage families in providing developmentally appropriate positive sensory exposures to optimize outcomes for their infant(s). Topics of education include: medical terminology, fetal development in the final months of pregnancy, the sensory environment of the NICU, sensory development, reading infant cues, identifying readiness for sensory exposures, how to provide different sensory exposures, and a week-by-week guide on specific doses and timing of sensory exposures to ensure consistent and developmentally appropriate delivery of positive sensory experiences at each postmenstrual age. The sensory interventions are designed to be provided by parents, but the medical team and/or volunteers can also be engaged to ensure the sensory needs of each infant are met.
In addition to the education materials and week-by-week guide, log sheets for parents, the medical team, and volunteers are provided to track the positive sensory exposures that are implemented each week. Although specific doses of positive sensory exposures are identified in the guide, it can be individualized for each infant based on the preferences of the family and/or the medical status/tolerance of the infant. An assessment of sensory tolerance is also included in the SENSE program package. The weekly assessment, which can be conducted more often when needed, aims to ensure that the infant tolerates the week-by-week sensory exposures as described, and it also provides guidance on how to identify adaptations to sensory exposures when necessary. The assessment is designed to be conducted by a physical or occupational therapist with neonatal expertise or by another designated health care professional.
High-risk infants who receive care in the NICU are exposed to significant stressors that include painful procedures, disruption of expected sensory experiences, and oftentimes stress related to parent-infant separation. The time in the NICU is during a period of rapid brain development, when neural networks rely on sensory exposures in order to develop optimally. In an environment where stimuli are primarily negative, positive sensory exposures and parent-infant interaction are crucial and can have life-long implications on learning, memory, emotions, and developmental progression. While the use of positive sensory exposures, such as massage, auditory exposure, and skin-to-skin care have been related to better parent and infant outcomes, a guideline that describes specific doses and targeted timing of positive multi-modal sensory exposures across all the days, weeks, or months of hospitalization was needed to guide the clinician and parent in optimizing the early NICU environment. Properly timed and age-appropriate positive sensory experiences can decrease stress and optimize positive learning experiences during this critical period of brain development. The type and timing of sensory exposure must match the level of maturity, based on the infant’s post-menstrual age (PMA) and should be modified according to individual infant cues. The evidence-based SENSE program was developed to define positive sensory exposures for each PMA.
The SENSE program is a comprehensive, standardized guideline on providing developmentally appropriate and timed sensory exposures for preterm and high-risk infants who are hospitalized in the NICU. The guideline can be initiated immediately after birth and used throughout NICU hospitalization. Education materials are designed for the family.
Advantages of the program include:
- Descriptive and comprehensive education aimed at informing and engaging parents in providing developmentally appropriate sensory exposures to their infant(s).
- Evidence-based week-by-week sensory interventions that adjust with postmenstrual age.
- Materials that can be individualized based on the needs of each NICU.
- The written materials available in the SENSE package include: a booklet for parents, log sheets to track sensory exposures, and a weekly infant assessment. An electronic version of SENSE is also available that enables education materials to be pushed to a personal computer, smartphone, or tablet. The electronic version has videos that demonstrate the described interventions.
Applications: Neonatology, Intervention Tools, Research Tools
Keywords: sensory integration, sensory enrichment, education, parent engagement, NICU, preterm, high risk infants
The week-by-week guide was developed after a rigorous process of protocol development. This included an integrative review that outlined 88 articles on sensory-based interventions (auditory, tactile, vestibular, visual, kinesthetic, and olfactory/gustatory) that were used with preterm infants to improve outcome, expert input from a multidisciplinary group of 108 health care professionals that defined sensory interventions implemented across different NICUs, 3 multidisciplinary focus groups that provided a critical review of the guidelines, and interviews with 20 parents of preterm infants who gave input on the feasibility of implementing the SENSE guideline in the NICU. The week-by-week guide ensures that the type and timing of different sensory exposures are tailored to infants based on their developmental needs. In 2017, a pilot study of 50 historical controls compared to 30 preterm infants who received the finalized SENSE protocol demonstrated feasibility and preliminary evidence of a positive impact on parent confidence and infant neurobehavior.
In 2018, seventy preterm infants (born <32 weeks) were enrolled in a randomized clinical trial. The infants from the SENSE treatment group had higher communication scores (as measured on the Ages and Stages Questionnaire)(p=0.04) at 1-year corrected age before controlling for social and medical risk factors. At term equivalent age, the SENSE group had higher lethargy scores on the NICU Network Neurobehavioral Scale (NNNS)(p=0.05) after controlling for social and medical risk. In addition, for younger mothers and parents living further away from the hospital, participation in the SENSE program was positively associated with increased parental engagement and presence within the NICU. Across both the pilot and randomized clinical trial, 5% of the infants required individualized adaptations or a break lasting no more than 2 weeks, while 95% of infants were able to tolerate the SENSE program as described.
To keep the SENSE program updated based on emerging literature, it will be assessed for changes every 5 years. An integrative review was completed in 2022 that included an additional 58 articles published between 2016 and 2020. A SENSE advisory team of 27 stakeholders (consisting of neonatologists, nurse practitioners, nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, and parents) was formed to aid in ensuring the SENSE program was evidence-based and incorporated the current published literature, remained appropriate for different types of families, and was applicable to different NICUs.
Although changes from the original SENSE program were made, the original SENSE guideline can still be used, as the recent evidence did not contradict the existing recommendations. However, there are some additions and refinement of language. The second edition of SENSE is now available to use in NICUs. We encourage NICUs who have paid the ‘user fee’ to transition to SENSE, 2nd Edition at their convenience, perhaps when there is a need for printing new materials. The updated materials for SENSE are available for download through the link provided upon payment of the user fee.
Implementation training workshops are also offered.
Pineda, R., Kellner, P., Ibrahim, C., SENSE Advisory Team Working Group, & Smith, J. (2023). Supporting and Enhancing NICU Sensory Experiences (SENSE), 2nd edition: An update on developmentally appropriate interventions for preterm infants. Children, 10(6), 961. https://doi.org/10.3390/children10060961 Show abstract
The Supporting and Enhancing NICU Sensory Experiences (SENSE) program promotes consistent, age-appropriate, responsive, and evidence-based positive sensory exposures for preterm infants each day of NICU hospitalization to optimize infant and parent outcomes. The initial development included an integrative review, stakeholder input (NICU parents and healthcare professionals), and feasibility focus groups. To keep the program updated and evidence-based, a review of the recent evidence and engagement with an advisory team will occur every 5 years to inform changes to the SENSE program. Prior to the launch of the 2nd edition of the SENSE program in 2022, information from a new integrative review of 57 articles, clinician feedback, and a survey identifying the barriers and facilitators to the SENSE program’s implementation in a real-world context were combined to inform initial changes. Subsequently, 27 stakeholders (neonatologists, nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, bedside nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, and parents) carefully considered the suggested changes, and refinements were made until near consensus was achieved. While the 2nd edition is largely the same as the original SENSE program, the refinements include the following: more inclusive language, clarification on recommended minimum doses, adaptations to allow for variability in how hospitals achieve different levels of light, the addition of visual tracking in the visual domain, and the addition of position changes in the kinesthetic domain.
Keywords. sensory-based interventions; sensory integration; sensation; exposure; environment; preterm; neonatal intensive care unit; NICU; tactile; auditory; multimodal; multisensory; vestibular; kinesthetic; visual; olfactory; gustatory; parenting; SENSE; review; program development
Whitehill, L., Smith, J., Colditz, G., Le, T., Kellner, P., & Pineda, R. (2021). Socio-demographic factors related to parent engagement in the NICU and the impact of the SENSE program. Early Human Development, 163, 105486. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2021.105486 Show abstract
Background. Early parent engagement in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is important for both parent and infant mental health and for improving developmental outcomes. It remains unclear how different programs, such as the Supporting and Enhancing NICU Sensory Experiences (SENSE) program, may empower parents from various socio-demographic groups to engage in the NICU. An improved understanding could aid in individualizing interventions for those at the highest risk for health disparities.
Aims. This exploratory study, which was part of a larger study, sought to explore 1) socio-demographic factors related to parent presence and engagement in the NICU and 2) if the Supporting and Enhancing NICU Sensory Experiences (SENSE) program related to increased parent presence and engagement among different socio-demographic groups.
Methods. Seventy mother-infant dyads (≤ 32 weeks gestation) were randomized to SENSE programming (parent education and age-appropriate, positive sensory interventions for parents to conduct with their infants every day of hospitalization) or standard care after admission to the NICU. The amount of parent presence and participation in sensory activities was tracked using bedside logs, nursing records, and research team documentation.
Results. Being married (p=0.048; p=0.01), having private insurance (p<0.001; p=0.01), and having fewer children (p=0.004; p=0.03) related to more parent presence and engagement. Parents who were Black had less presence and engagement in the NICU (p=.04; p=0.02). Participation in the SENSE program was related to more parent presence and engagement among younger mothers (p=.002; p=<0.001) and among parents living farther distances from the hospital (p<0.001; p=0.004).
Conclusion. Programming, such as SENSE, can improve engagement among high-risk groups.
Pineda, R., Smith, J., Roussin, J., Wallendorf, M., Kellner, P., & Colditz, G. (2021). Randomized clinical trial investigating the effect of consistent, developmentally-appropriate, and evidence-based multisensory exposures in the NICU. Journal of Perinatology, 41, 2449–2462. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41372-021-01078-7 Show abstract
Objective. Evaluate the effect of a manualized multisensory program, applied across NICU hospitalization, on infant and parent outcomes.
Study design. Seventy parent-infant dyads (born ≤32 weeks gestation) in a Level IV NICU were randomized at birth to the multisensory program or standard-of-care. Parents in the multisensory group administered prespecified amounts of age-appropriate, evidence-based sensory interventions to their infants each day during NICU hospitalization according to the Supporting and Enhancing NICU Sensory Experiences (SENSE) program.
Results. Infants who received the SENSE program had more lethargy on the NICU Network Neurobehavioral Scale (NNNS) (p = 0.05), even after controlling for medical and social risk (p = 0.043), and had higher Communication scores on the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (p = 0.04) at 1-year corrected age, but this relationship failed to reach significance after controlling for medical and social risk (p = 0.12).
Conclusion. The SENSE program shows promise for improving outcomes, but more research with larger sample sizes is needed.
Pineda, R., Roussin, J., Kwon, J., Heiny, E., Colditz, G., & Smith, J. (2021). Applying the RE-AIM framework to evaluate the implementation of the Supporting and Enhancing NICU Sensory Experiences (SENSE) program. BMC Pediatrics, 21, 137. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12887-021-02594-3 Show abstract
Background. To maximize the benefit of parent-directed, positive sensory exposures in the NICU, a structured sensory-based program titled the Supporting and Enhancing NICU Sensory Experiences (SENSE) program was developed that includes specific doses and targeted timing of evidence-based sensory exposures.
Methods. The Reach, Effectiveness, Adoption, Implementation, Maintenance (RE-AIM) framework was used to systematically evaluate the SENSE program as an implementation strategy. One-hundred preterm infants ≤32 weeks gestation were studied (61 receiving the SENSE program and 39 standard-of-care). Parent education time and infant sensory exposures were tracked, and parents completed a questionnaire that probed their perceptions about the SENSE program.
Results. One-hundered thirty-one families were recruited, and 100 (76%) enrolled. The SENSE program was initiated at an average postmenstrual age of 29.8 (±2.4) weeks; 4.9 (±5.6) days after birth. The average number of education sessions with families was 4.8 (±3.7) amounting to 72.3 (±37.4) total minutes over hospitalization. The total time of logged tactile and auditory exposures among SENSE recipients over the length of hospitalization was a median (IQ range) of 9325 (5295-15,694) minutes over an average of 10.1 (±7.6) weeks of hospitalization. There were differences in the proportion of tactile and auditory exposure targets received by the infant among those receiving the SENSE program compared to standard-of-care (91% compared to 48%; p < 0.0001). Ninety-five percent of infants tolerated the SENSE program as defined, with 5% of infants requiring intermittent adaptations or the interventions being stopped for a period that typically lasted 1–2 weeks. Earlier parent education was related to more parent participation in SENSE program interventions (p = 0.04). Eighty-five percent of participants receiving the SENSE program had most of the sensory interventions completed by parents, as opposed to the medical or sensory support team. Seventy-two percent of infants had at least 100% of the auditory and tactile doses conducted over the length of stay. Parents reported acceptability.
Conclusion. The SENSE program had good reach, was effective and acceptable with minimal cost, was adopted, and had good fidelity. Insights from implementation of the SENSE program (within a research study) informed future strategies to aid maintenance during dissemination.
Liszka, L., Heiny, E., Smith, J., Schlaggar, B. L., Mathur, A., & Pineda, R. (2020). Auditory exposure of high‐risk infants discharged from the NICU and the impact of social factors. Acta Paediatrica, 109(10), 2049-2056. https://doi.org/10.1111/apa.15209 Show abstract
Aim. To (a) define the early home auditory environment of high‐risk infants within one month of neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) discharge, (b) compare auditory exposures in the home environment to the NICU environment, and (c) define relationships between maternal/infant factors and auditory exposures within the home.
Methods. Seventy‐three high‐risk infants (48 high‐risk infants in the NICU at term‐equivalent age and 25 high‐risk infants in the home following NICU discharge) had auditory exposures measured.
Results. An average of 1.3 hours more noise (P ≤ .001) and 2 hours less silence (P = .01) were observed in the NICU compared with the home, but differences varied based on whether comparing to an open ward or private room. Infants with public insurance, lower household income and mothers without a college education were exposed to an average of 2.8, 3.0 and 2.3 hours more TV/electronic sounds respectively (P < .05). An average of 1744 fewer adult words (P = .03) were spoken in households with public insurance. There was an average of 3.1 hours less silence and 4.5 dB louder stimuli among households with lower income (P < .05).
Conclusion. Elucidating differences across environments can lead to interventions to foster appropriate auditory exposures to improve language development of high‐risk infants.
Pineda, R., Wallendorf, M., & Smith, J. (2020). A pilot study demonstrating the impact of the supporting and enhancing NICU sensory experiences (SENSE) program on the mother and infant. Early Human Development, 144, 105000. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2020.105000 Show abstract
Aim. To explore differences in maternal mental health and infant neurobehavioral outcome among infants who received and did not receive the Supporting and Enhancing NICU Sensory Experiences (SENSE) program.
Study design. Eighty preterm infants (50 receiving standard-of-care and 30 receiving the SENSE program) born ≤32 weeks gestation were enrolled within the first week of life in a prospective quasi-experimental design, using a historical control group for comparison. Standard-of-care consisted of tactile (skin-to-skin, touch, holding) and olfactory (scent cloth, close maternal contact) interventions as determined to be appropriate by health care professionals and parents. The SENSE group received specific doses of tactile (skin-to-skin care, holding, massage, touch), auditory (human speech, music), olfactory (scent cloth, close maternal contact), kinesthetic/vestibular (movement, rocking/transfers), and visual (dim or cycled light) exposures, based on the infant's postmenstrual age and tailored to medical status and infant cues according to the SENSE program. The SENSE program includes the intentional delivery of positive, age-appropriate sensory exposures by parents (or a sensory support team, when parents are unavailable) each day of NICU hospitalization. Infant neurobehavioral outcome, as well as maternal mental health and confidence, were assessed prior to NICU discharge, using standardized measures.
Results. Seventy-three infants were included in the final analysis. Mothers whose infants received the SENSE program demonstrated higher scores on the Maternal Confidence Questionnaire (p = 0.01). Infants who received the SENSE program demonstrated less asymmetry on the NICU Network Neurobehavioral Scale (p = 0.02; mean difference 0.9) and higher scores on the Hammersmith Neonatal Neurological Evaluation (p < 0.001; mean difference 4.8).
Discussion. Preliminary evidence demonstrates improvements in maternal confidence and infant neurobehavioral performance following SENSE implementation.
Pineda, R., Roussin, J., Heiny, E., & Smith, J. (2019). Health care professionals' perceptions about sensory-based interventions in the NICU. American Journal of Perinatology, 36(12), 1229-1236. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0038-1676536 Show abstract
Objective. The main objective of this article is to define perceptions of health care professionals regarding current use of sensory-based interventions in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
Study Design. A multidisciplinary group of NICU health care professionals (n = 108) defined the types of sensory-based interventions used in their NICU, the postmenstrual age (PMA) sensory-based interventions are administered, conditions under which sensory-based interventions are used, and personnel who administer sensory-based interventions.
Results. The most commonly reported tactile intervention was infant holding (88% of respondents), the most common auditory intervention was recorded music/singing (69% of respondents), the most common kinesthetic intervention was occupational and physical therapy (85% of respondents), and the most common vestibular intervention was infant swings (86% of respondents). Tactile interventions were initiated most often at 24 to 26 weeks PMA (74% of respondents), auditory interventions at 30 to 32 weeks (60% of respondents), kinesthetic interventions at 30 to 32 weeks (76% of respondents), vestibular interventions at 33 to 34 weeks (86% of respondents), and visual interventions at 32 to 36 weeks (72% of respondents). Conditions under which sensory-based interventions were administered, and personnel who provided them, varied across settings.
Conclusion. Varied use of sensory-based interventions in the NICU were reported. While this study was limited by biased sampling and the identification of health care professionals' perceptions but not real-world practice, this information can be used to build a comprehensive approach to positive sensory exposures in the NICU.
Liszka, L., Smith, J., Mathur, A., Schlaggar, B. L., Colditz, G., & Pineda, R. (2019). Differences in early auditory exposure across neonatal environments. Early Human Development, 136, 27-32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2019.07.001 Show abstract
Background. To date, no study has compared preterm and full term auditory environments.
Aim. To define differences in auditory exposure for preterm infants at term equivalent age in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) compared to auditory exposure in hospital rooms on a labor and delivery ward after full term birth.
Study design. Ninety-eight infants (48 preterm infants born 28 weeks gestation in the NICU at term equivalent age and 50 full term infants in a hospital room on the labor and delivery ward within 4 days of birth) had auditory exposure measured over a single 16-hour period using the Language Environment Acquisition (LENA) device.
Results. More language (p < 0.001) was observed on the labor and delivery ward than in the NICU, with an average of 3.3 h more language in a 16-hour period and an average of 14,110 more words spoken around infants in a 16-hour period on the labor and delivery ward (p < 0.001). More electronic sounds were observed in the NICU, with an average of 2.3 h more in the 16-hour period (p < 0.001). The average decibel level in the NICU was lower than in the hospital rooms on the labor and delivery ward (57.16 ± 2.30 dB, compared to 63.31 ± 2.22 dB; p < 0.001).
Conclusion. The NICU auditory environment for preterm infants is different than the auditory environment for full term infants, with less language, more electronic sounds, and quieter stimuli. This understanding can aid in developing appropriate interventions that enhance positive forms of auditory exposures.
Clubbs, B., Barnette, A., Gray, N., Weiner, L., Bond, A., Harden, J., & Pineda, R. (2019). A community hospital NICU developmental care partner program: Feasibility and association with decreased nurse burnout without increased infant infection rates. Advances in Neonatal Care, 19(4), 311-320. https://doi.org/10.1097/ANC.0000000000000600 Show abstract
Background. Volunteers can provide staff-directed sensory inputs to infants hospitalized in the NICU, but research on volunteer programs is limited.
Purpose. To evaluate the feasibility of a developmental care partner (DCP) program in a level III NICU and determine its relationship with provider burnout and infant infection rates.
Methods. DCPs were trained to provide sensory input to infants, based on the behavioral cues observed by the occupational therapists and nursing staff, in medically stable infants. Feasibility was assessed by documenting the process of training and utilizing volunteers, as well as tracking duration and frequency of DCP visits. Staff burnout measures were assessed using the Maslach Burnout Inventory Human Services Survey (MBI-HSS) before and after implementation. Infant infection rates before and after the introduction of volunteers were compared.
Results. Seventy-two volunteers were interested, and 25 (35%) completed the DCP competencies and provided sensory exposures to 54 neonates, who were visited an average of 8 times (range 1-15). Twelve (48%) DCPs did once-per-week visits, and 9 (36%) did at least 50 contact hours. MBI-HSS scores for staff emotional exhaustion (P < .001) and depersonalization (P < .006) were lower after DCP implementation. There were no differences in infant infection rates before and after DCP implementation (Fisher exact P = 1.000).
Implications for Practice. Volunteer-based DCP programs may be feasible to implement in community hospitals and could help reduce staff emotional exhaustion and depersonalization without increasing the incidence of infant infections.
Implications for Research. Future research on NICU volunteer programs with larger sample sizes and different infant populations is warranted.
Pineda, R., Raney, M., & Smith, J. (2019). Supporting and enhancing NICU sensory experiences (SENSE): Defining developmentally-appropriate sensory exposures for high-risk infants. Early Human Development, 133, 29-35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2019.04.012 Show abstract
Introduction. There is evidence to support the use of positive sensory exposures (music, touch, skin-to-skin) with preterm infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), but strategies to improve their consistent use are lacking. The Supporting and Enhancing NICU Sensory Experiences (SENSE) program was developed to promote consistent, age-appropriate, responsive, and evidence-based positive sensory exposures for the preterm infant every day of NICU hospitalization.
Methods. A systematic and rigorous process of development of the SENSE program included an integrative review of evidence on sensory exposures in the NICU, stakeholder feedback, expert opinion, and focus groups.
Results. SENSE implementation materials consist of parent education materials, tailored doses of sensory exposures for each postmenstrual age, an infant assessment of tolerance, bedside logs and implementation considerations for integrating the SENSE program into the NICU.
Discussion. Research is needed to evaluate the SENSE program as an implementation strategy and to assess its impact on parent and infant outcomes.
Pineda, R., Bender, J., Hall, B., Shabosky, L., Annecca, A., & Smith, J. (2018). Parent participation in the neonatal intensive care unit: Predictors and relationships to neurobehavior and developmental outcomes. Early Human Development, 117, 32-38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2017.12.008 Show abstract
Objective. To 1) define predictors of parent presence, any holding, holding in arms, and skin-to-skin care in the NICU and 2) investigate the relationships between parent participation and a) early neurobehavior and b) developmental outcomes at age 4 to 5 years among preterm infants.
Methods. Eighty-one preterm infants born ≤ 32 weeks estimated gestational age were prospectively enrolled within one week of life in a level III–IV NICU. Parent (maternal and paternal) presence and holding (including holding in arms and skin-to-skin care) were tracked throughout NICU hospitalization. Neurobehavior at term equivalent age and development at 4 to 5 years were determined using standardized assessments.
Results. The median number of days per week parents were documented to be present over NICU hospitalization was 4.0 (IQR = 2.4–5.8) days; days held per week 2.8 (IQR = 1.4–4.3) days [holding in arms days per week was 2.2 (IQR = 1.2–3.2) days and parent skin-to-skin care days per week was 0.2 (IQR = 0.0–0.7) days]. More parent presence was observed among mothers who were Caucasian, married, older, or employed and among those who had fewer children, familial support and provided breast milk (p < 0.05). More holding was observed in infants with fewer medical interventions (p < 0.05) and among those who were Caucasian, had a father who was employed, had fewer children and family support (p < 0.05). More parent holding in the NICU was related to better reflex development at term age (p = 0.02). More parent skin-to-skin care was related to better infant reflexes (p = 0.03) and less asymmetry (p = 0.04) at term and better gross motor development (p = 0.02) at 4–5 years.
Discussion. Social and medical factors appear to impact parent presence, holding, and skin-to-skin care in the NICU. Parent holding is related to better developmental outcomes, which highlights the importance of engaging families in the NICU.
Keywords. Neonatal intensive care unit; Preterm; Parent engagement; Participation; Development; Holding; Skin-to-skin care; Presence; Visitation; Outcomes; Environment; Attachment
Ryckman, J., Hilton, C., Rogers, C., & Pineda, R. (2017). Sensory processing disorder in preterm infants during early childhood and relationships to early neurobehavior. Early Human Development, 113, 18-22. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2017.07.012 Show abstract
Background. Preterm infants are exposed to a variety of sensory stimuli that they are not developmentally prepared to handle, which puts them at risk for developing a sensory processing disorder. However, the patterns and predictors of sensory processing disorder and their relationship to early behavior at term equivalent age are poorly understood.
Objectives. The aims of the study are to: 1) describe the incidence of sensory processing disorder in preterm infants at four to six years of age, 2) define medical and sociodemographic factors that relate to sensory processing disorder, and 3) explore relationships between early neurobehavior at term equivalent age and sensory processing disorder at age four to six years.
Methods. This study was a prospective longitudinal design. Thirty-two preterm infants born ≤ 30 weeks gestation were enrolled. Infants had standardized neurobehavioral testing at term equivalent age with the NICU Network Neurobehavioral Scale. At four to six years of age, participants were assessed with the Sensory Processing Assessment for Young Children (SPA).
Results. Sixteen children (50%) had at least one abnormal score on the SPA, indicating a sensory processing disorder. There were no identified relationships between medical and sociodemographic factors and sensory processing disorder. More sub-optimal reflexes (p = 0.04) and more signs of stress (p = 0.02) at term equivalent age were related to having a sensory processing disorder in early childhood.
Conclusion. Preterm infants are at an increased risk for developing a sensory processing disorder. Medical and sociodemographic factors related to sensory processing disorder could not be isolated in this study, however relationships between sensory processing disorder and early neurobehavior were identified.
Keywords. NICU; Sensory processing disorder; Neurobehavior; Prematurity
Pineda, R., Guth, R., Herring, A., Reynolds, L., Oberle, S., & Smith, J. (2017). Enhancing sensory experiences for very preterm infants in the NICU: an integrative review. Journal of Perinatology, 37, 323–332. https://doi.org/10.1038/jp.2016.179 Show abstract
Objective. Very preterm infants hospitalized in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) experience alterations in sensory experiences. Defining types, timing and frequency of sensory-based interventions that optimize outcomes can inform environmental modifications. The objective of this study was to conduct an integrative review on sensory-based interventions used with very preterm infants in the NICU to improve infant and parent outcomes.
Study Design. The data sources include MEDLINE, CINAHL, Cochrane Library and Google Scholar. Studies were identified that used sensory-based interventions in the NICU with preterm infants born ⩽32 weeks gestation, were published in a peer-reviewed journal between 1995 and 2015, and measured outcomes related to infant and parent outcomes. Studies were extracted from electronic databases and hand-searched from identified reference lists.
Results. Eighty-eight articles were identified (31 tactile, 12 auditory, 3 visual, 2 kinesthetic, 2 gustatory/olfactory and 37 multimodal). There was evidence to support the use of kangaroo care, music and language exposure, and multimodal interventions starting at 25 to 28 weeks postmenstrual age. These interventions were related to better infant development and lower maternal stress, but not all findings were consistent. Limitations included lack of consistent outcome measures, study quality and gaps in the literature.
Conclusions. Most research identified interventions that were done for short periods of time. It is unclear what the potential is for improving outcomes if positive sensory exposures occur consistently throughout NICU hospitalization. Until more research defines appropriate sensory-based interventions to use with infants born very preterm in the NICU, information from this review can be combined with expert opinion and parent/family values to determine best practice.
Pineda, R., Durant, P., Mathur, A., Inder, T., Wallendorf, M., & Schlaggar, B. L. (2017). Auditory exposure in the neonatal intensive care unit: Room type and other predictors. The Journal of Pediatrics, 183, 56-66.e3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2016.12.072 Show abstract
Objective. To quantify early auditory exposures in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and evaluate how these are related to medical and environmental factors. We hypothesized that there would be less auditory exposure in the NICU private room, compared with the open ward.
Study design. Preterm infants born at ≤ 28 weeks gestation (33 in the open ward, 25 in private rooms) had auditory exposure quantified at birth, 30 and 34 weeks postmenstrual age (PMA), and term equivalent age using the Language Environmental Acquisition device.
Results. Meaningful language (P < .0001), the number of adult words (P < .0001), and electronic noise (P < .0001) increased across PMA. Silence increased (P = .0007) and noise decreased (P < .0001) across PMA. There was more silence in the private room (P = .02) than the open ward, with an average of 1.9 hours more silence in a 16-hour period. There was an interaction between PMA and room type for distant words (P = .01) and average decibels (P = .04), indicating that changes in auditory exposure across PMA were different for infants in private rooms compared with infants in the open ward. Medical interventions were related to more noise in the environment, although parent presence (P = .009) and engagement (P = .002) were related to greater language exposure. Average sound levels in the NICU were 58.9 ± 3.6 decibels, with an average peak level of 86.9 ± 1.4 decibels.
Conclusions. Understanding the NICU auditory environment paves the way for interventions that reduce high levels of adverse sound and enhance positive forms of auditory exposure, such as language.
Keywords. preterm; senses; environment; language
Smith, J. R., & Pineda, R. G. (2016). Determining appropriate sensory exposures in the NICU: Too much, too little, or just right? [Editorial]. Neonatal Network, 35(2), 63-65. https://doi.org/10.1891/0730-0818.104.22.168 Show abstract
Pineda, R. G., Neil, J., Dierker, D., Smyser, C. D., Wallendorf, M., Kidokoro, H., Reynolds, L. C., Walker, S., Rogers, C., Mathur, A. M., Van Essen, D. C., & Inder, T. (2014). Alterations in brain structure and neurodevelopmental outcome in preterm infants hospitalized in different neonatal intensive care unit environments. The Journal of Pediatrics, 164(1), 52-60.e2. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2013.08.047 Show abstract
Objective. To evaluate associations between neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) room type (open ward and private room) and medical outcomes; neurobehavior, electrophysiology, and brain structure at hospital discharge; and developmental outcomes at 2 years of age.
Study design. In this prospective longitudinal cohort study, we enrolled 136 preterm infants born <30 weeks gestation from an urban, 75-bed level III NICU from 2007-2010. Upon admission, each participant was assigned to a bedspace in an open ward or private room within the same hospital, based on space and staffing availability, where they remained for the duration of hospitalization. The primary outcome was developmental performance at 2 years of age (n = 86 infants returned for testing, which was 83% of survivors) measured using the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development, 3rd Edition. Secondary outcomes were: (1) medical factors throughout the hospitalization; (2) neurobehavior; and (3) cerebral injury and maturation (determined by magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalography).
Results. At term equivalent age, infants in private rooms were characterized by a diminution of normal hemispheric asymmetry and a trend toward having lower amplitude integrated electroencephalography cerebral maturation scores (P = .02; β = −0.52 [CI −0.95, −0.10]). At age 2 years, infants from private rooms had lower language scores (P = .006; β = −8.3 [CI −14.2, −2.4]) and a trend toward lower motor scores (P = .02; β = −6.3 [CI −11.7, −0.99]), which persisted after adjustment for potential confounders.
Conclusion. These findings raise concerns that highlight the need for further research into the potential adverse effects of different amounts of sensory exposure in the NICU environment.
Meet the Team and Copyright Information
Bobbi Pineda PhD, OTR/L
Dr. Bobbi Pineda is a Certified Neonatal Therapist who has been practicing since 1992. Her first child was born at 29 weeks gestation in 1998. She became intrigued with conducting research and developing products aimed at supporting the parents of infants in the NICU as well as supporting the developmental progress of the premature infant. She is a former Assistant Professor at Washington University and is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California. Her current work focuses on better understanding how early factors in the NICU environment support the development of the growing, premature infant and their family.
Joan Smith PhD, RN, NNP-BC
Joan Smith has 3 decades of neonatal nursing experience and has worked as a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner since 1994. She is currently the Director of Quality, Safety, and Practice Excellence at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. She has led multiple care teams with a focus on implementing evidence-based care interventions to support infant development. She collaborates with Bobbi Pineda to better understand how the NICU environment can impact infant development in babies born prematurely. Her biggest claim to fame: she is the mother of former 29-week twin boys and has a very keen interest in this topic.
Mary Raney, a now-retired neonatal nurse practitioner, was instrumental in developing the initial SENSE parent education materials.
In 2022 a multidisciplinary SENSE advisory team (consisting of neonatologists,nurse practitioners, nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, and parents) was formed to aid in ensuring the SENSE program was evidence-based and incorporated the most current published literature, remained appropriate for different types of families, and was applicable to different NICUs.
We wish to thank our SENSE task force members: Cristina Gallup (CNS), Juhita Parmar (PT), Maureen D. Howell (MT-BC), Michele Hyams (PT), Jane Keith (PT), Bob White (MD), Adriana Rusch (OT), Liz Drake (NNP), Sharon Helton (OT), Zinnia Kamal (PT), Crystal Baize (parent), Cara Iuliano (SLP), Carolyn Ibrahim (OT), Melanie Petrushko (OT), Kate Tauber (MD), Raquel Garcia (SLP), Kati Knudsen (PT), Cathy Bush (NP), Kristen Carrierfenster (NP), Danielle Prince (OT), Jordan Starr (parent), Yamile Jackson (parent), Daphna Barbeau (MD), Emily Bordier (SLP), Karen Lukas (RN), and Tricia Cook (OT).
Read more about our Task Force members.
We also thank Polly Kellner, Rebecca Guth, Audrey Gronemeyer, Erica Gliga, Jessica Roussin, Marinthea Richter, Bethany Gruskin, and Delaney Smith.
This work is funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, as well as the University Research Strategic Alliance (URSA), Washington University in St. Louis. We express our appreciation to those who made the development of these materials possible.
SENSE: Copyright 2017, by Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri and 2022 by University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California. All rights reserved.
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Download a preview of the SENSE parent education materials.
- Preview samples of SENSE materials that are available through public viewing on the website may be shared for viewing. However, preview materials should not be utilized unless the entire SENSE program ‘user fee’ is paid and the SENSE program is implemented in order to ensure safety of the infants it was designed for.
- The week-by-week guide provided on the website is a sample and is not the full guide. The SENSE program includes additional parent education materials on tailoring interventions with infants with complex medical conditions, and includes an implementation strategy to ensure there is consideration of multiple factors, as adhering to dosages of sensory exposures without the implementation strategy can be dangerous.
Purchase of the SENSE program also includes electronic access to allow the program materials to be downloaded and printed by providers who have paid the user fee. Additionally, an electronic version of the parent education materials (MS PowerPoint format) containing embedded videos can be downloaded for use with families in your hospital. Parent education materials are provided for download in both English and Spanish. If you are a NICU parent interested in the SENSE program, reach out to your provider to access the materials via a QR code or see the option to purchase a parent education booklet below.
Supporting & Enhancing NICU Sensory Experiences (SENSE) program
Purchase additional SENSE materials
Preprinted parent education books are available for purchase, for those hospitals that have already purchased the program. These are not intended to be used without careful attention to safety and implementation, as contained in the implementation package received upon purchase of the SENSE program.
Additional parent education books (English)
1 copy, $15
2 to 150 copies, $12 each
151 to 499 copies, $9 each
500 or more copies, $7 each
Additional parent education books (Spanish)
1 copy, $15
2 to 150 copies, $12 each
151 to 499 copies, $9 each
500 or more copies, $7 each