Despite the best intentions of health care professionals, preterm birth remains a significant issue.
Premature birth places a child at risk for a multitude of short- and long-term complications including disabilities and impediments in growth and mental development.
Neurological impairment can mean that the child is more likely to need special educational support when they reach school age.
However, care for the neonate has advanced significantly, with new research suggesting that sensitive parenting helps protect against the negative effects of being born prematurely, improving a child’s school success.
Researchers from the University of Warwick determined that parents of very preterm and very low birthweight (VP/VLBW) children can increase their child’s academic achievement through sensitive and cognitively stimulating parenting.
Researchers looked at parenting styles of parents of 6-year-olds to see what effect they had on those children’s school success when they reached the age of 13.
They discovered that highly sensitive parenting at age 6 boosted the academic performance of VP/VLBW children when they reached 13 to levels similar to full-term children. A parallel increase was not seen for full-term children.
However, the results also showed that more cognitively stimulating early home environments benefit all children’s long-term school success, regardless of whether they were premature.
Dieter Wolke, Ph.D., of the University of Warwick said: “By sensitive parenting, we mean adapting one’s parenting to the individual child’s behavior and responses, while clearly remaining the more competent partner and setting age-appropriate limits.
“So for example providing gentle feedback and suggesting potential solutions rather than taking over and solving the tasks for the child.”
Wolke suggests cognitively stimulating parenting, in which parents include activities designed to get children thinking, such as reading to them or doing puzzles together.
“We found that both these styles of parenting have a positive effect in increasing school performance, with sensitive parenting particularly effective at closing the gap in achievement between preterm and low birthweight children and their full-term counterparts,” he said.
The study, “Effects of Sensitive Parenting on the Academic Resilience of Very Preterm and Very Low Birth Weight Adolescents” is found in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Investigators sought to determine whether parenting has an influence on academic achievement of preterm children.
They looked at two groups of German children: 314 very preterm/very low birth weight children and a control group of 338 full-term children.
They were studied from birth to age 13, with the researchers analyzing socioeconomic status, neurological and physical impairment at age 20 months and levels of parental sensitive and cognitive stimulation at age 6 years. School success was measured from six to 13 years of age.
The study defined very preterm as babies born at less than 32 weeks gestation or weighing less than 1500 grams (3 lbs 5 oz).
The researchers found that the 15 percent of highly sensitive parents within the VP/VLBW group had children whose academic performance at 13 years was similar to the full-term children.
In contrast, parents of VP/VLBW children who showed low sensitivity had children who required more special educational help and had more schooling problems.
Maternal sensitivity made little difference to the grades or academic performance of full-term children, who were much less susceptible to parenting differences.
The research found that cognitively stimulating parenting raised academic performance across both groups of children.
Wolke said: “The results suggest that sensitive parenting boosts children’s self-control and attention regulation, which are important for school success.
“We would like to see increased investment in programs that equip parents of VP/VLBW with the skills needed to provide appropriate and sensitive support to their children.”
Source: University of Warwick