(Reuters Health) - Even though parents of premature babies may be more stressed out than other parents when their kids are young, their quality of life is similar to that of other parents by the time children are grown, a recent study suggests.
Researchers examined data on parents and babies from birth until the children were 27 years old on average. By the end of the study, parents’ quality of life did not differ according to how early their babies arrived, whether kids had disabilities or difficulties in school, or how well they had gotten along with other children.
The exception was for parents of children with mental health problems or difficulties in their relationships with other kids, for whom quality of life was worse, even when kids were grown.
“Expressed simply, parents are happy if their children were happy in childhood and had friends,” lead study author Dieter Wolke, a psychology researcher at the University of Warwick in the U.K., said by email.
Pregnancy normally lasts about 40 weeks, and babies born after 37 weeks are considered full term. The study focused on the most vulnerable preterm infants, delivered before 32 weeks' gestation or weighing less than 1,500 grams (3.3 pounds) at birth.
In the weeks immediately after birth, preemies often have difficulty breathing and digesting food. They can also encounter longer-term challenges such as impaired vision, hearing and cognitive skills, as well as social and behavioral problems.
The study included 219 parents of underweight and preterm babies who arrived after an average gestation of about 30 weeks at an average birth weight of 1,300 grams (2.9 pounds).
Researchers also followed a control group of 227 parents of healthy infants who arrived at an average gestation of more than 39 weeks and with an average weight of 3,374 grams (7.4 pounds)
All of the babies were born in Germany in 1985 and 1986. Researchers did seven assessments of the babies and parents from birth to adulthood.
As expected, the preemies had more difficulties early on.
For example, 39 percent of the underweight and preterm infants had disabilities, compared with about 6 percent of the full-term babies. The preemies also did worse in school.
When children were in their late 20s, researchers asked parents to fill out quality-of-life surveys assessing their own physical and mental health as well as things like their social life and financial resources.
Overall, parents of the adult preemies had life satisfaction scores similar to the parents of healthy infants, researchers report in Pediatrics.
One limitation of the study is that many of the parents of preemies dropped out by the end, the authors note.
Because children’s mental health and peer relationships did impact parents’ quality of life, families might want to consider counseling to encourage social engagement for kids who struggle in these areas, said Dr. Nigel Paneth, a researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing who wasn’t involved in the study.
“Children with disabilities are often left out of activities, and it takes extra parental effort to bring them into the fuller social engagement with their peers that they deserve,” Paneth said by email. “This might also reduce the mental health burden.”
Support for parents of preemies is crucial, too, said Dr. Saroj Saigal, a pediatrics researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“It is extremely important for parents of preemies to be supported in the neonatal intensive care unit and after discharge by health professionals and experts in the area of mental health,” Saigal said by email. “Support from friends and families are also crucial.”
Parents of preemies might be just as satisfied as parents of healthy kids by the time children are grown because their preterm infants wound up doing better than expected, said Trond Nordheim, a psychologist at Akershus University Hospital in Lorenskog, Norway who wasn’t involved in the study.
The take-home message with preemies?
“It may be tough at first, but it will be ok,” Nordheim said by email.
SOURCE: bit.ly/2hOckFZ Pediatrics, online August 10, 2017.