How Sensory Play Can Help Your Premmie Baby Thrive

How Sensory Play Can Help Your Premmie Baby Thrive

How Sensory Play Can Help Your Premmie Baby Thrive

Our latest blog post has been written by blogger Ashley from Confessions of a NICU Mom.

Ashley is the mama to her miracle Hazel, a former 23 weeker. She has been sharing their journey since Hazel was born, bringing awareness to the world of prematurity, HELLP syndrome and what life is like as a special needs mama. She has spoken at a global conference sharing their story of birth before viability and the benefits of skin to skin for babies on the jet ventilator.

Ashley is a firm advocate for early intervention and believes strongly in creative play, and sensory development and she shares her world on Instagram as @hazelandmama and through her blog ( She is currently working on her first 2 books with plans to publish later next year.


Our daughter Hazel was born at just 23 weeks gestation weighing a mere 420 grams. During her first 6 months in neonatal intensive care, her paediatrician had explained to us the developmental delays and diagnosis Hazel could face in the coming years. We knew there was a chance she would have cerebral palsy, and we knew she could potentially see delays in meeting her milestones.

Having that knowledge early, on allowed us to educate ourselves as to how we would best be able to support her learning and encourage her to meet her milestones with as little difficulty as possible.

This sweet babe had already gone through so much in her short life, and we knew that we had the ability to make learning fun for her, once we came home.

Hazel is now two and a half and a thriving, happy toddler.


She was recently diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy, epilepsy and childhood apraxia of speech but she has still done exceptionally well. I’m a firm believer in early intervention, and I’m certain that Hazel’s determination has been largely influenced by a positive environment of creative play and learning!

Since preemies have a higher likelihood of having sensory processing disorders, it was important to us that the majority of creative play had a foundation based on sensory development. So, I wanted to share one of Hazel’s favourite activities with a handful of variations!

Now, before I get into that I want to dive a little deeper into why sensory play is so important for former preemies and micro preemies.


The importance of working on sensory development with preemies and why?

We all know that a baby continues to develop in utero throughout our pregnancy so when a babe is born too soon she continues to develop in an incubator surrounded by far more stimulation than they would have in utero. There are alarms going all day and all night in the NICU, there are heel pokes for lab work daily, and IV’s and central lines. Often a micro preemie will need a head ultrasound if not several, to monitor brain bleeds, and many babes are intubated or on some form of respiratory support which often means they also will receive a chest x-ray at some point. They go through regular eye exams to prevent vision loss from too much oxygen, and many babes end up needing surgery before they have even reached “term”.

There is an important premise being explored recently referred to as trauma-centred care - which essentially looks at what these types of stressors or trauma can do to a premature baby long term. When our body is stressed out it releases specific hormones which, for a developing babe can have a lasting effect on their development.

Knowing and understanding this, it’s easy to see why many preemies develop a sensory processing disorder. Anything from the feeling of certain fabrics to textures of food can be difficult to process for these babies. For us, it was a priority to get Hazel used to a variety of textures from early on in an attempt to avoid those aversions. So we made it fun.

My list of play activities which focus on sensory development

Hazel loves what I refer to as ‘animal rescue’, and it’s ridiculously easy.

Sensory Play – Animal Rescue


Items needed:

  • Small squeeze bottle or spray bottle
  • Ice cube tray
  • Shallow bin or wide tray with a lip
  • Small animal figures


  • Blue food colour and water
  • Slotted spoon
  • Dry washcloth


Instructions: (you will need to do this over a day or so)

The activity itself is simple, really!

  • Place your small animal figures in the ice cube tray (one animal for each ice cube). We like to stick to a theme, one tray of safari animals and another of farm animals.
  • Fill the tray with water, and place in the freezer until frozen solid.
  • Once the animals are frozen, fill the spray or squirt bottle with warm water
  • Break the ice cubes free from the tray and place in the shallow bin or tray.
  • I give Hazel a squirt bottle and let her work her way through rescuing the animals from the ice.


    I usually put a towel down beneath the tray or in the warmer months, we do this activity outside.

    The activity is quick and easy and focuses on a broad range of developmental skills.

    As I mentioned earlier, sensory play has been important in our home and that was where this activity started, but it has also allowed for a handful of other skills!

    • The spray bottle or squeeze bottle helps to strengthen the muscles and joints in tiny toddler hands and works on their fine motor skills.
    • With Hazel being speech delayed with apraxia, working on speech and language is worked into everything we do, and this activity has been no exception.
    • We label the animals as she is trying to “rescue” them from the ice and when she does get the animal free, we make the sound the animal makes! During the activity, we also take advantage of using descriptive words like “cold”, or “hard” when describing the ice. And we use repetitive words such as “spray, spray, spray” when she’s working at freeing the animals, and celebratory words such as “hooray!” when she gets the animals free.

      We also take the time during the activity to teach Hazel why the water is melting the ice, and the reaction between hot and cold which also provides an opportunity for a number of teaching moments applying to real life and our environment.

      Adapting the activity for different age groups

      What I love about this activity is how adaptable it is for a number of age groups.

      For older kids, you can make it a race between children to see who can free their animal first and for younger toddlers, you can place the ice cubes into a bowl of warm water to watch it melt and help your little one free the animal a little easier.

      We have adapted animal rescue a couple of ways recently to keep things interesting for Hazel.

      • Add warm water to your bin and a couple drops off blue food dye for contrast, and then add the ice with your animals frozen inside. We then use a slotted spoon to work on that scooping motion to save the animals from the sea and then work on melting the remaining ice.
      • Adding one more level to the activity, we provide a dry hand towel or washcloth and once the animal is rescued we dry it off to keep it safe and warm and place it in it’s home.

      There are so many ways to adapt such a simple activity, whether it’s space rescue using astronaut figures, or adding other elements of pretend play the possibilities are endless and when we are done with the activity it’s as easy as refilling the tray and putting it back in the freezer so it’s ready for the next time your kiddo wants to play!

      Whatever activities you choose to do with your little one, creative play is a way to keep them interested and learning together. As the mama of a micro preemie with special needs, I have seen the benefits first hand.


      Below is a list of our favourite sensory play ideas with Hazel that give her a wide variety of exposure to different textures and sensory ideas.

      • playdough kits with themes that focus on different textures (for example, sticks, flowers, rocks)
      • corn kernel sensory bins (to make this fun we use farm themed toys… tractor, animals etc)
      • different textured balls
      • texture book - for this we just made a book with each page having a different texture on it… so we used things like sandpaper, felt, faux fur etc.
      • rainbow coloured spaghetti
      • sensory bottles
      • cooked green peas in a big sensory bin with some spoons and cups
      • musical therapy - sensory doesn’t always mean textures or things you can feel. We started reading to Hazel at her bedside from the first week she was born and when she came home we introduced quiet music and went to mother goose classes.
      • painted feet - a preemie will likely undergo dozens and dozens of heel pokes for blood work in a short time so it’s common for former preemies to have an aversion to their feet being touched. To fight against this we did daily massage on Hazel’s feet, and one of her favourite activities now that she can walk is laying down cardboard and painting the soles of her feet with finger paints and letting her walk around making footprints. The feeling of paint on her feet is a different sensory experience.

      Wow, what an incredible insight into parenting premmie babies and an amazing selection of sensory play ideas to help premmie babies thrive! And so many wonderful creative play ideas that can be adapted to your baby. Thank you so much, Ashley, for your wonderful guest blog contribution. 

      Please say hi to Ashley over on her social channels listed below.



      If you want to learn more about Ashley's experience as a NICU Mum to a premmie, she has a book coming out soon, Confessions of a NICU Mom, be sure to sign up to her blog or Instagram to get more updates.  

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