Pre-term birth and behaviour problems

Pre-term Birth and Behaviour Problems in Infants and Pre-school Children: A Review of the Recent Literature

by Elena Arpi and Fabrizio Ferrari

Pre-term birth is the delivery of a baby before 37 weeks and can have a deep impact on child development. Intellectual disability and a wide spectrum of behavioural problems are common in pre-term children, including:

Between 0 to 2 years
  • poor capacity to regulate emotions
  • challenging behaviour
  • poor capacity to explore the environment 
From age 3 to 5 years
  • poor attention
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • relational difficulties 
These early problems are difficult to recognize but can affect behaviour in later childhood. The major risk factors are: 
  • altered brain maturation
  • dysfunctional mother-infant relationship related to maternal anxiety in the neonatal Intensive Care Unit 
To promote the mental development among these vulnerable children, parents need specific early support. Follow-up programs should also include behavioural assessment.

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