• premature infant;
  • neonatal intensive care;
  • history;
  • mother–infant interaction;
  • infant outcomes and maternal care

Background. Advances in technology have resulted in increasing survival rates even for extremely premature infants. While sophisticated medical management is vital to infant survival, research has found that social factors and care giving processes are important predictors of infants' later outcome. Consequently, evidence is accumulating to demonstrate the fundamental role of mothers and families to the optimal developmental outcome of premature infants.

Aim. The aim of the work reported here was to undertake an historical overview of premature infant care practices to increase neonatal nurse's knowledge of the crucial role of mothers and families in the care of their premature infants. Understanding past practice and current trends can provide neonatal nurses with critical insight which will assist in formulating current and future care.

Method. Research and historical articles focusing on maternal involvement in preterm infant care from the development of the incubator to the present time were examined. A search of the literature between 1960 and 2002 was conducted using the MEDLINE, CINAHL and PSYCLIT databases. The search terms were premature infant, neonatal intensive care, history, and maternal care.

Findings. Three major themes were identified which reflect the development of neonatal care. Firstly, over the last century advances in medical and public health practice saw a decline in mortality rates for mothers and infants. Secondly, the application of this new knowledge resulted in the institutionalization and professionalization of obstetric and neonatal care which, in turn, resulted in the isolation of infants from their mothers. Finally, concurrent advances in infant research emphasized the importance of mother–infant relationships to infants' developmental outcome, resulting in greater flexibility in hospital practices regarding parental contact with their infants.

Conclusion. As biomedical advances in technology continue to help smaller, sicker premature infants to survive, neonatal nurses are strategically placed to promote positive outcomes for infants and their families through the integration of social science and behavioural research into nursing practice.