Premature babies or babies with a low birth weight may be at risk of poorer developmental, according to the latest Growing Up in Ireland report published yesterday. However, it said the study had focused on nine-month-old babies and further research would determine if their development “caught up” when they got older.
The latest report from the national longitudinal study, involving more than 11,000 children, investigated infants’ development and looked at factors such as parental stress, depression and sensitivity towards the child’s needs.
It said the link between poorer development and premature birth was not surprising “given that being born prematurely or with a low birth weight may reflect a slower rate of biological maturation”.
However, one of its authors, Dr Elizabeth Nixon of Trinity College Dublin, said it was possible that premature babies just needed time to catch up.
The babies were nine months when studied; she said the information being collected on these families when the children were three and five years old would allow researchers to see how these early experiences were affecting outcomes later in the child’s life.
The study highlighted the link between a baby’s development and the sensitivity shown by parents when interacting with the baby. It said parental stress was associated with depression, having a baby with a difficult temperament and not having adequate support.
Dr Nixon said parenting behaviours by both parents could be negatively affected by stress and depression, but babies could be protected from these if sensitive parent-child interactions were maintained.
Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said there were a lot of lessons to be learned from the findings, adding that the continuities between child health and adult health were frightening.
“I don’t think people out there realise it at all . . . I’m really trying to get that message out there about early intervention and getting resources into those early years, and I include teenage years in that.”
Ms Fitzgerald said the economic benefits of early intervention were “so enormous” and the cost of not intervening was very high.
“There are lessons about public health nurses’ involvement with parents, particularly parents who perhaps have a child who is a little bit more difficult or has some particular needs or has special needs,” she said. “I think the scope we have there to do the kind of work that’s necessary with the parents who need it . . . is absolutely enormous.”
She also said there was a need to offer more support after a baby’s birth to help mothers to breast-feed, saying it could make “quite a difference” to the sensitivity of mothers towards their children.
The Growing Up in Ireland – Parenting and Infant Development report, by Elizabeth Nixon and
of Trinity College Dublin and
of the Economic and Social Research Institute, is available at growingup.ie