Premature Babies Might Make Fewer Friends, New Study Says, But Don't Worry Just Yet

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Thinking about delaying your preterm child's entry to school? You might want to reconsider. While premature birth can ultimately lead to long-term health effects such as intellectual and developmental disabilities, which can affect preterm babies' social skills and behavior down the line, the social setting that a school provides them might actually help. According to new research, premature babies tend to make fewer friends in their early pre-school childhood years because they're less accepted by their peers. As they grow older and enter elementary school, however, they socialize more and mostly catch up with full-term children.

Premature babies could experience trouble or delays in physical development, learning, communicating with others, getting along with others and taking care of themselves, according to March of Dimes. Complications could include behavioral problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety, neurological disorders like cerebral palsy, and autism, which could affect a child’s speech, social skills and behavior.

Professor Dieter Wolke of the Department of Psychology and Warwick Medical School led a team of researchers who analyzed more than 1,000 children born in Germany between 1985 and 1986 from the Bavarian Longitudinal Study. Of these children, 179 were born very premature (under 32 weeks gestational age), 737 were moderately-to-late preterm (born between 32 and 36 weeks) and 231 were healthy full-term babies (born between 37 and 41 weeks gestation). And the analysis suggests that children born at all prematurely (very prematurely and moderately-to-late preterm babies) are less accepted by those around them, according to Science Daily.

The researchers assessed the parent-infant relationships and the participating children's neonatal complications on a daily basis. By the ages of 6 and 8 years old, psychologists and pediatricians then also assessed the cognitive and motor development, as well as any behavioral problems, according to Newswise. Meanwhile, researchers asked the parents and their children about how many friends the children had and how often they saw those friends. They even completed a picture quiz to determine how the children felt they were perceived by their peers.

The results found that, by the age of 6 years old, very preterm participants had an average of four friends, while full-term participants had an average of five friends, according to Newswise. Very preterm children also saw their friends 15 percent less often than those who born full term, and parents also noted that they felt like their preterm kids weren't as accepted by their peers. Boys, children from larger families and any children with more cognitive, motor or behavior problems, or poorer parent–infant relationships in infancy, had fewer friends, played with them less and were less accepted by their peers.

Fortunately, these children made more friends and gained more acceptance from others as they'd transitioned into school by the age of 8. By then, both very preterm and full-term children averaged about six friends, but very preterm children still saw friends 15 percent less often than full-term children. That said, parents and their children actually reported sensing equal acceptance by the children's peers, Newwise reported.

"Future interventions to improve friendships and social interaction skills should start before school entry to prevent later psychopathology and behaviour problems," Wolke said, according to India Blooms. He also notes that improving early parenting and motor, cognitive, and behavioral development could also facilitate friendships and peer acceptance for children across the whole gestation gamut. That's because, of course, having friends and feeling accepted is important for social support and personal wellbeing. When one has fewer friends and feels less accepted, they can inevitably feel lonely, excluded and sometimes even face bullying.

Wolke and his colleagues ultimately concluded that parents of a preterm child who might be tempted to hold their child back and delay school entry may want to reconsider. Entering school on time will increase that child's social networks and could actually help them develop their skills quicker.

Parents of preterm babies should also be advised on how to create opportunities for social interaction, according to India Blooms, to build their social skills before they reach school age. It looks like more park playdates with the neighborhood kids are in your future.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.