Training Parents of Premature Children Decreases Behavioral Problems

Early intervention programs designed to help parents of premature infants better understand their children's needs can significantly reduce behavioral problems later in life, researchers in Norway have found.

Early intervention programs designed to help parents of premature infants better understand their children’s needs can significantly reduce behavioral problems later in life, researchers in Norway have found.

Children born prematurely tend to have higher rates of behavioral problems, particularly attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The goal of the study was to determine whether giving special training to parents of children born prematurely would alter the children’s risk of developing such behavioral problems.

Lead researcher Marianne Nordhov, MD, PhD, of the University Hospital of North Norway in Tromso, and her fellow researchers randomly selected the parents of 146 preemies, all born weighing less than 4.4 pounds, to receive the special training or to raise the child with standard care alone. The parents of 75 full-term infants were also recruited into the study as controls.

The researchers implemented the training program in the hospital immediately after the babies were born. After the children were taken home, nurses visited the parents four times over three months to instruct them on how to play with and pick up cues from their children.

"Preterm infants are often more fussy, give less eye contact and are harder to understand for parents," Nordhov told Reuters Health. "They display signs of stress in a subtle way, such as color changes, 'jittery' movements, and increased respiration rate.”

The researchers found that, at the age of five, the children whose parents received training showed fewer behavioral problems such as inattention, aggression, or withdrawn behavior. In addition, reports made by the parents showed that only 29% of the children whose parents were in the training program scored in the "borderline" range on the behavior-problem scale, compared with 48% of premature kids whose parents were not in the program. Children on the borderline are more likely to develop behavioral issues such as ADHD, said Nordhov.

"Our study has shown that only 12 hours of parental education improves their knowledge and confidence, which in turn improve the interaction with their infant in a beneficial way," Nordhov told Reuters Health. "It is important that nurses and doctors spend time with parents and teach them how to better interact and understand this 'difficult' task of language.”

The study was published online last week in Pediatrics.