Doctors once thought that premature babies had a higher risk of developing behavioral disorders, but a new study finds that home life plays a much larger role in this. Medical professionals associate preterm birth with a myriad of mental problems. Attention Deficit Disorder, Autism, social and emotional problems, and behavioral issues occur more often in babies born early.
They are also at a higher risk for developing anxiety disorders or other neurodevelopmental issues, including cognitive problems, language difficulties, and motor delays. However, new research shows that premature birth is not the determinant factor in a child's future mental health or development.
According to a study conducted at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, a stable home environment made the difference in whether babies born ten weeks prematurely or earlier developed problems.
The children who had healthier, nurturing mothers and entered stable home life after the NICU were more likely to overcome the complications of preterm birth and turn out both psychiatrically and neurodevelopmentally normal.
The findings, published on August 26 in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, show improved outcomes for infants born earlier that ten week premature when their mothers reported lower levels of depression and parenting stress. They also received more cognitive stimulation in the home, such as being read aloud to.
The children who did develop psychiatric problems came from more dysfunctional homes, where mothers were stressed. These mothers also experienced more ADHD symptoms and higher levels of psychosocial stress.
Researchers are optimistic about their findings, which demonstrate modifiable risk factors. Factors like maternal psychiatric health and family environment can be targeted with interventions.
It is interesting how even with the world against him, a stable home environment can give a preemie a fighting chance. Hospital NICUs should probably put some of their energy towards ensuring that their preterm babies enter a healthy home environment after their discharge, and helping families who may have barriers to this.