Play in the Neonatal Unit

Neonatal Unit (NNU)
Colchester Hospital
Tel: 01206 742950

What do I need to know?

Having a new baby brother or sister arrive early who has to stay in hospital can be a confusing and stressful time for a child. This leaflet offers information on some common behaviours and feelings that may be experienced by your other child / children, and suggestions for helping them to cope with the experience.

More Information

There are important reasons to reduce light, noise and other stimuli (something that causes a response from the baby) on the Neonatal Unit until your baby is ready. Stimuli can be introduced through play with the support of the hospital play specialists and neonatal staff.

  • To introduce a variety of stimuli to get them ready for the outside world.
  • To build on the bond already forming between baby and mum, dad, (siblings, grandparents as appropriate) to develop links with home.
  • To encourage movement, coordination and strength.
  • To make sense of the world around them
  • For you to enjoy getting to know your baby and gain in confidence in handling him or her.

Your baby will begin to be more awake and alert at certain times of the day, often from around the time when the baby would have been at 36 weeks of pregnancy. Your nurse will discuss with you the activities that will be appropriate and we have a small selection of sensory toys available. Please ask for advice at any time.

Play times should be very short to start with, maybe just a few minutes, but this will increase with time.

Take note of behavioural signs telling you when he or she has had enough. You will become more familiar with these cues as you get to know your baby.

  • Babies love the sound of your voice, so try singing softly or telling stories and encourage eye contact.
  • Place a mirror for your baby to see him or herself.
  • Black and white pictures can be used to catch your baby’s attention.
  • Place picture books in the cot and look at them together.
  • Gentle rattles and bells shaken in different directions can encourage head movement.
  • A shiny red ball or rattle, held above the face and moved slowly side to side, will help your baby fix and follow with his or her eyes.
  • Play some soft music but do not leave your baby with the music on because you need to be aware of your baby’s responses.
  • Your baby is sensitive to different textures of materials, balls and books, so let your baby feel them with his or her hands, feet and cheeks.
  • Change your baby’s view of the world, for example, over your shoulder or sitting up.
  • Give your baby time on your chest to strengthen neck and shoulder muscles and improve head control. This also helps prevent flat head syndrome.
  • Encourage your other children to make photo collages and black and white pictures (that can be laminated) for the cot.
  • Your baby’s behavioural signs so you know when he or she has had enough stimulus.
  • Of other babies’ needs and check your playtime does not disturb them – please ask the nurse.
  • Any medical advice that may affect play.

You may contact a play specialist on the Children’s Unit for advice, support and directed play sessions as required or ask a member of the neonatal team to contact them for you.

To find out how to give us feedback on your visit or healthcare experience, please visit and search for ‘PALS’ or ‘Your views matter’, or speak to a member of staff on the ward or department you are in.