Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) are places families don’t prepare to experience but that many have to manage. Stress and confusion can overwhelm the best of us when dealing with a medically fragile infant. Trying to cuddle, communicate, and feed an infant in an isolate with wires, tubes, masks, and sensors isn’t necessarily what you may have planned for, but you aren’t alone.

Breathe. According to the March of Dimes there are 7,361 babies born prematurely in the U.S. each week.

A team of researchers has come together in Baltimore to create a Mother Goose on the Loose (MGOL) “Goslings” program to help families in the NICU. They include experts from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and University of Maryland School of Medicine, community partners at Port Discovery Children’s Museum and PNC Bank, and Dr. Betsy Diamant-Cohen, who developed Mother Goose on the Loose, a nationally-recognized early literacy program for parents and caregivers with children from birth to age three.

“Collaborating with wonderful partners gave me the idea to combine the early language and literacy program for infants born prematurely with a medically-informative, skill-building, successful outreach program,” says Diamant-Cohen. Like all MGOL programs, Goslings is designed to build a sense of community in a nurturing, nonjudgmental, environment while giving parents age-appropriate tools for assisting in their children’s healthy development through purposeful play.”

Goslings Program - (cool) progeny

Goslings helps families of premature babies, as well as medically fragile full-term babies, bond with their child by learning when and how to stimulate their language development. Parents learn to provide stimulation by singing, reading, and playing when their baby is medically ready and showing “I’m happy and ready” body language.

“Parents are excited about taking a more active parenting role, doing something specific with and for their baby that feels good instead of feeling disconnected,” says Dr. Brenda Hussey Gardner, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Families also learn what to do on days when their baby is less medically ready or is showing “I’m not happy” body language. Parents learn to identify this body language and practice modifying their interaction to best meet their baby’s needs, such as by whispering or giving a NICU “hand hug.”

Susan Sonnenschein, Professor of Psychology at UMBC, evaluated Goslings and found that, “This is a program that parents love and is fairly easy for them to implement. They especially like learning how to ‘read’ their babies’ signals.”

Goslings Program - (cool) progeny

The one-hour in-hospital workshops make possible a level of parent-child connection that otherwise can be very challenging to establish in the NICU. By working to improve young children’s language development, starting from the time they are in the NICU, the researchers hope the Goslings program will have lasting developmental benefits like being ready at five for kindergarten.

These strategies are not only for families with babies in NICUs or medically fragile babies at home. Any parent can use these strategies to engage with their child and, in the process boost, language development and bond more closely.

Here are six tips on how you can start communicating with your baby.

Goslings Program - (cool) progeny

How to Communicate With Your Baby in the NICU and at Home

Traffic Light

You’re familiar with it: Red means stop, yellow means be cautious, green means go. These simple reminders help guide parents as they prepare to interact with their baby. If your baby’s arms eyes are open, face and legs are relaxed, they are happy and ready. It’s a green light. When babies bring their hands to their mouths, clasp their hands together or hold onto your finger, they are helping to soothe themselves. Slow down and let them. That’s a yellow light. When babies arch their backs, push their arms out with fingers apart, look away or grimace, stop. They may need a change of activity (or maybe a diaper change). That’s a red light. Remember, you communicate with your eyes, voice, and body, and your baby does too. Let your baby tell you what they need by reading their signals.

You Are the Center of Their World

Babies like reassurance. Before you touch your baby, talk gently to them so they know you are there instead of being startled. When you play with them, hold them about ten inches from your face so they can see you better. If talking or gentle touch appears to startle your baby and they give you a yellow or red light, just invite the baby hold your finger until they are ready for more interaction.

If You Are Happy and You Know it, Sing a Song

Parents can sing. Remember, to your baby’s ears, your voice is the most beautiful in the world! Singing songs that talk about how much you love your baby may enhance bonding. In Goslings, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands” was modified to “Since I love you very much, I’ll hold your hand.” But if you don’t like mushy songs or nursery rhymes, don’t worry. You can sing any songs that you like as long as they include child-friendly lyrics.

Leader of the Band

Gently showing and shaking a rattle while you sing to your baby fosters visual skills. As you sing the song, let your baby look at the rattle (newborn); you can also slowly move the rattle side-to-side (1-month), up and down (2-months) or in a circle (3 months). When choosing a rattle or other instrument, remember to keep sounds gentle as loud sounds can startle young babies. Using instruments while singing also helps your baby to learn about rhythm.

Stories Everywhere

Your baby loves to hear your voice. Reading lets your baby hear your voice and teaches your baby to love books. When using books with your baby you can read the words, make up your own story or simply talk about the pictures in the book. As you “read” each page, show it to your baby. Remember that reading time should be fun, if your baby gets fussy, take a break and read again later.

Chit Chat Time

Don’t underestimate the power of simply talking to your baby. Research has shown that the more words a baby hears before the first day of kindergarten, the more ready they are to succeed in school. So whenever your baby is happy and ready, talk. Talk about everything: what you see, what you hear, what you do, and how very much you love your baby.


Editor’s Note: Photos by Marlayna Demond for UMBC.