Parents' behavior affects development of low birth weight babies

December 06, 2001

Babies born small at full term may show different temperament characteristics than normal-weight babies, according to a study that also found that the way a baby's mother responds to this sometimes-troublesome behavior can affect infant development.

The study, published in the December issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, notes that some smaller babies' early experiences, their home environment and the way their mothers perceive and interact with them affect the babies' performance on several infant development measurements, says lead author Kathleen S. Gorman, Ph.D., of the University of Rhode Island.

Mothers who perceive their small babies as difficult are less involved with and less responsive to their infants, and these infants score lower on developmental tests compared to babies whose mothers were more sensitive to their dispositions, the study found.

"Among [small for gestational age] infants, a perception of more difficult temperament in the first 3 months was associated with subsequently lower-quality parental behavior in ways that were not observed for the [normal birth weight] infant," says Gorman. Higher-quality parental behavior was defined as more sensitive, caring and appropriate mother-child interaction and was based on physical involvement, quality of interactions and the developmental appropriateness of interactions.

"Whereas it was clear that temperament and parenting were linked over time, our data suggest that in the case of the SGA infant, early temperament may be particularly critical for development of more optimal parenting behavior."

"Parents who are aware of these differences may be more likely to respond in more sensitive and appropriate ways," Gorman says.

Gorman and colleagues compared the behavioral development of 39 normal birth weight and 44 full-term but small-for-gestational-age infants during the first six months of life. A baby born full term (37 to 42 weeks' gestation) and below the 10th percentile for birth weight is considered small for gestational age. Gorman and her colleagues also measured the quality of each mother's interaction with her baby, the stress level in each home and the quality of stimulation for an infant in the home environment.

All children in both groups performed within the normal range on the developmental tests. But the data showed that an infant's temperament and the subtle differences in the way parents interact with their child may contribute to the child's long-term development. This was found to be true for normal weight babies, but significantly more so for babies born small for gestational age.

Infants' temperament scores were based on measures of activity level, smiling/laughing, fear of novelty, distress to limitations, soothability and orienting to an object or task. Developmental scores were based on tests of cognitive and motor skills.
The study was supported by a grant to Andrea Lourie from Child and Adolescent Psychology Training and Research, Inc., in Burlington, Vermont. The research was conducted as Lourie's dissertation study.

The Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics is published bimonthly by the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. For information about the journal, contact Mary Sharkey at (212) 595-7717.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health For more research news and information, go to our special section devoted to health and behavior in the "Peer-Reviewed Journals" area of Eurekalert!, For information about the Center, call Ira Allen, (202) 387-2829.

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