Psychological Society Conference: Glum lives begin with early birth

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CHILDREN WHO are born prematurely are less likely to grow up happy and may have social problems in later life, according to new research.

Dr Elizabeth Hoy, of Queen's University, Belfast, told the British Psychological Society yesterday that toddlers born with very low birth weight were less likely to smile or laugh and were emotionally impaired when compared with other children. "These children spent more of their time showing no emotion at all. They were emotionally flat," she said.

Dr Hoy said that the emotional dampening was not caused by physical damage to the brain but by them being overloaded with stimuli in the early weeks of their lives. "Instead of being in the womb, where it is nice and quiet, they are thrust into the world very early, before they are able to cope. The highly stimulating world of the neo-natal care units is a world full of monitors, lights and procedures that prove painful," she said.

Although nurses do their best to lessen the pain for infants in intensive care units, the children are normally disturbed every 20 minutes.

Parents can help children who are born prematurely by encouraging them to express themselves in their own time. "Parents are often anxious with premature children that they will not develop properly. They try to compensate by stimulating the child and this can frighten and overload the children," Dr Hoy told the society's conference in Bel-fast. She said some mothers were very good at listening patiently to children and pushing them gently in the right direction, but that others tended to over-stimulate them in an attempt to elicit a reaction. "It is very difficult for parents - especially if they have previously lost a child, possibly a twin - and they will want to compensate for the pain their child has undergone.

"But over-compensation is not the answer. The parents need to learn to be patient and quiet and allow their children to display emotion when the time is right."

The study was conducted on 52 toddlers who were conceived at about the same time. Those in the premature group were, on average, 21 months old and their social behaviour was compared with 18-month-oldswho were born at the normal birth weight. The premature babies had an average birth weight of under 1kg (2lb 3oz). All the mothers came from a similar social background and the number of other children in the house was taken into account. The researchers videoed the children playing and assessed the levels of sociability, smiling, laughter and activity.

"The picture was one of less emotional intensity. The low birth weight children gave fewer, shorter smiles and laughs than the other children," said Dr Hoy.

Research conducted in the United States has shown that creating a calmer environment in neo-natal intensive care improves the social behaviour of these premature babies.

The study confirms previous work conducted by Dr Hoy that showed that seven-year-olds thought their classmates who had been born prematurely were sad and unhappy.

Teachers also reported that these children were quieter and more withdrawn.