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Premature Infants at Risk for Behavioral Problems


If your child was born premature, he or she may be at risk for behavioral and/or emotional problems once they reach preschool age, according to a new study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood. Apparently, leaving the womb a few weeks early increases a child’s tendency to experience aggression, attention disorders, and other behavioral problems.

Premature infants may act out in later years

In previous research, infants born very premature, which is defined as less than 32 weeks’ gestation, had been shown to be more likely to experience behavioral problems than infants born at term. In 2002, for example, scientists at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences reported that after analyzing 20 years of research from around the world, they found that premature infants were more likely to have lower cognitive scores, behavioral problems, and a lower than average ability to learn after they reached age 5 years than infants born full-term.

In this latest study, the researchers evaluated more than 1,500 children who were born moderately premature, which is defined as being born between weeks 32 and 35 of pregnancy, at age 4 years. According to the Dutch researchers, the rate of moderately premature births has been rising.

Of the more than 1,500 children, 995 were classified as moderately premature, while the remaining 577 children were born at term. The evaluators looked at anxiety/depression, aggression, attention disorders, somatic complaints, acting out (externalizing behaviors), and internalizing behaviors.

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Overall, the children born moderately preterm scored higher on all of the factors than did their full-term peers. Acting out was more prevalent among boys, which was noted in 10 percent of the males, while a similar percentage of girls born moderately premature had higher levels of internalized behaviors.

When moderately premature children were compared with full-term children, those in the former category were nearly 2.5 times more likely to internalize problem behaviors and nearly 70 percent more likely to act out. They were also nearly twice as likely to have emotional and behavioral problems overall.

The results of this study may help parents and other involved adults be aware of and prepare for such behavior and get help for these children. Unless behavioral problems are tackled early, they have a tendency to continue into adolescence and have an impact on children’s academic, family, and social lives.


Bhutta AT et al. Journal of the American Medical Association 2002 Aug 14; 288(6): 728-37
Potijk MR et al. Archives of Disease in Childhood 2011: doi:10.1136/adc.2011.300131

Picture credit: Morguefile