Testy Preemies Get Better With Age

Temperament Problems Ease During First Year

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 20, 2002 -- Parents of premature infants can take comfort in knowing that the unruly temperament of many preemies will moderate considerably during the first year of life. A new study shows although preterm babies may be more difficult to care for early on, the temperamental differences between preemies and full-term babies lessen over time.

Researchers say preterm infants are usually considered more difficult to care for than full-term infants, but little is known about their temperament in the first three months of life and how it changes in the coming months.

Premature infants are born before a full 37 weeks of pregnancy. Researchers say they are often fussier and more irregular in bodily functions, such as eating, sleeping, and bowel movements, than full-term babies.

The study, published in the December issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, compared the temperaments (as reported by their mothers) of 74 premature babies to those full-term infants.

At six weeks, researchers found significant differences between the two groups, and the preemies were much less regular in their body functions, more distractible, and more likely to withdraw in new situations than full-term infants.

For a parent, the study researchers say that sort of temperament can present many challenges.

"Irregularity of biological functions, although an expected hurdle of early parenthood, appears to be more challenging for parents of preterm infants," write researcher Mary B. Hughes, PhD, RN, of the University of Pennsylvania and now at Rutgers University College of Nursing and colleagues. "This tendency renders their life somewhat unpredictable, making it difficult to plan for daily activities not knowing when the preterm infant's physiologic needs will interrupt the daily flow."

But by six months of age, the preemies only differed from the others in one area -- they were less adaptable. At 12 months, the only major temperamental difference was that the preemies were less likely to persist in an activity when confronted by an obstacle.

Researchers say that by anticipating these problems at various stages of their child's development, they can adapt their parenting style to reduce conflict with the infant.

"It is during these early weeks that preterm infants are at risk for overstimulation by parents diligently attempting to connect with their infant," write the researchers. "Infants that become overloaded by environmental stimuli respond by shutting down and tuning out."

SOURCE: Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, December 2002.