Premature babies struggle with bonding

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Some very premature infants have trouble bonding with their parents due to brain abnormalities and not because of poor or abusive parenting, a new study suggests.

UK researchers looked at 71 very premature infants born at less than 32 weeks' gestation or weighing less than 3 pounds 5 ounces and 105 full-term babies. They found that 61% of the very preterm infants were securely bonded to their mothers, compared with 72% of the full-term babies.

The study also found that 32% of very premature infants showed "disorganised attachment" at 18 months, compared with 17% of the full-term children, according to the University of Warwick team.

In healthy attachment, a child uses the parent as a secure base from which to explore the world. In disorganized attachment, a child shows conflicting behaviour in their relationship with their parents, the researchers explained.

These differences in attachment occurred even though mothers of very premature children were as, or even more sensitive in their parenting than mothers of full-term infants. This suggests that disorganised attachment in very premature babies was caused by brain abnormalities, not harmful parenting.

Disorganised attachment

The researchers noted that disorganised attachment can be a sign of negative parenting and abuse in full-term infants, and that this study highlights the need for health care workers to know whether a child was born prematurely when assessing baby-parent relationships.

"Very preterm children often spend months in incubators and in hospital after birth. Despite this stressful start we found parents of very premature children to be as sensitive in their parenting as those of healthy preterm children," study leader Dieter Wolke said in a university news release.

"However," he added "very preterm children more often have neurological and developmental problems and these explained why they were more likely to be disorganised in their attachment or bonding despite sensitive parenting."

The study was published online recently in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood: Fetal and Neonatal Edition.

While the study suggested that very premature babies may be at risk for bonding trouble. It did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

"Health professionals should be aware that disorganised attachment in preterm children is often a sign of these children's developmental problems and not because they are harshly or abusively parented," Wolke said in the news release.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics outlines premature baby milestones.

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