Differences Between Premature and Full-Term Babies Evident in Early Life

Studies have long shown developmental differences between premature and full-term infants, but new research shows that these differences are evident in the first few weeks of life, even before premature babies are discharged from the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis evaluated 75 infants born at least 10 weeks prematurely. They assessed infants at 34 weeks gestation and again at 40 weeks, when they would have reached full-term.

Researchers found that premature infants had significant differences compared to full-term infants, including less muscle tone, poorer reflexes and stress levels, and greater difficulty tracking objects and people in the NICU.

According to lead researcher Bobbi Pineda, a research assistant professor in Washington University’s Program in Occupational Therapy, the research suggests intervention measures such as physical and occupational therapy in the NICU may help premature babies catch up to their full-term counterparts before they leave the hospital.

“There are such drastic changes in the first year of life, and now we know that in preemies, those changes begin to occur even before their due date,” Pineda said. “That presents a great opportunity to intervene and to help these babies grow so they can make the same milestones as their full-term peers and reach their full potential.”

Rachelle Tyler, associate professor of pediatrics and director of developmental studies program at the department of Pediatrics at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, said the study’s conclusion supports “a challenge to neonatal intensive care units to begin early interventions as soon as possible.”

To address a goal of children being born healthy in Los Angeles County, First 5 LA’s Healthy Births Initiative provides voluntary case management services, health education, social support and care between pregnancies to high-risk women.

The initiative funds seven Best Babies collaboratives, which consist of a local network of community perinatal service providers in geographic areas with high levels of poor pregnancy outcomes. Home visitation, health education, and social support and care between pregnancies are also provided.

First 5 LA has invested about $28 million in the Healthy Births Initiative since 2002. For more information, click here.

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