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Sensory Integration and Pain Tolerance in Preemies

By Allison Martin

Preemies sometimes exhibit unusual tolerance for pain as they grow up, indicative of sensory integration issues.

Soon after birth preeemie babies are exposed to a variety of painful procedures, continuing throughout most of their stay in the NICU hospital. Yet when they come home, preemies are often noted for their intense responses to sensory input and sensory activites. They may have difficulty adjusting to the new routine of the home - different sound, lights, and touch. Some preemies over react to sensory activities such as being held, feeding or sudden movement. Yet when they are older some preemies seem to have a high tolerance of pain. This high pain tolerance seems to be related to sensory integration issues and can be of concern to parents.

Rene Miller was struck by preemie parents concerns of their preemies high pain tolerance, during a discussion on the Preemie Child forum. She explains, "My two year old (non preemie) son's favorite thing right now is to get a "boo boo" and run to mommy for a "kiss" to make it all better. It always amazes and delights me that this works. When my now 14 year old preemies were two years old, this seldom happened. As with many other preemies on the Preemie-Child forum, my preemies had higher tolerance for the little pains and didn't go running to mom or dad to make it all better."

Rene Miller collected quotes of the preemie parents who discussed the variety of sensory integration responses and their preemie pain tolerance. She says, "While not all the preemies had a higher tolerance as babies and toddlers, it is interesting to note that many did. Those of us with full term children to compare them to seem to feel it is related in some way to their prematurity."

For example, Luann noticed that as an infant her preemie son Drew (29 weeks, 2lb. 2oz.) seemed to be immune to pain. She says, "He could fall and bump his head or get scrapes and bruises and not even miss a beat. The same accidents would send "normal" kids into hysterics. Family, day-care providers, or whoever happened to witness this would just be amazed. I always attributed his high pain tolerance to the fact that he spent 3 months in the NICU and had several more hospitalizations where he experienced pain regularly."

Some preemie children seem to continue to be overly tolerant of pain, while many seem to notice pain much more - sometimes intensely - as they grow older. These issues are a source of concern and wonder to preemie parents. As Teresa explains, ""Both of my somewhat premature daughters, born 6 weeks early, seemed insensitive to pain as infants. I anguished that they had been damaged irreversibly, in some psychic sense, because they had suffered through pain while, I imagined, other infants were learning that the world is filled with stuffed animals, caresses, and trips to the rocking chair. At the time, the movement to hold your baby immediately after birth, respond instantly at the sound of their cries, etc. was in full swing. Yet I had no choice but to stand by while my babies learned about pain."

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