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Sensory-based interventions in the NICU: systematic review of effects on preterm brain development



Infants born preterm are known to be at risk for abnormal brain development and adverse neurobehavioral outcomes. To improve early neurodevelopment, several non-pharmacological interventions have been developed and implemented in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Sensory-based interventions seem to improve short-term neurodevelopmental outcomes in the inherently stressful NICU environment. However, how this type of intervention affects brain development in the preterm population remains unclear.


A systematic review of the literature was conducted for published studies in the past 20 years reporting the effects of early, non-pharmacological, sensory-based interventions on the neonatal brain after preterm birth.


Twelve randomized controlled trials (RCT) reporting short-term effects of auditory, tactile, and multisensory interventions were included after the screening of 1202 articles. Large heterogeneity was identified among studies in relation to both types of intervention and outcomes. Three areas of focus for sensory interventions were identified: auditory-based, tactile-based, and multisensory interventions.


Diversity in interventions and outcome measures challenges the possibility to perform an integrative synthesis of results and to translate these for evidence-based clinical practice. This review identifies gaps in the literature and methodological challenges for the implementation of RCTs of sensory interventions in the NICU.


  • This paper represents the first systematic review to investigate the effect of non-pharmacological, sensory-based interventions in the NICU on neonatal brain development.

  • Although reviewed RCTs present evidence on the impact of such interventions on the neonatal brain following preterm birth, it is not yet possible to formulate clear guidelines for clinical practice.

  • This review integrates existing literature on the effect of sensory-based interventions on the brain after preterm birth and identifies methodological challenges for the conduction of high-quality RCTs.

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Fig. 1: PRISMA flow diagram.
Fig. 2: Risk of bias graph and summary across all of the included studies.


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Substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data: M.I.B., J.D., T.M.d.J., and A.v.d.H. Drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and final approval of the version to be published: all authors.

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Beltrán, M.I., Dudink, J., de Jong, T.M. et al. Sensory-based interventions in the NICU: systematic review of effects on preterm brain development. Pediatr Res (2021).

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