The early life of a very premature baby can be a hectic and stressful time for parents. But once the child is grown, parents are as satisfied with life as those whose babies were born at full term, new European research finds.
“Parents of very premature or very low birth-weight children did not differ in quality of life 27 years later compared to parents who had children born healthy and at term,” said the study’s lead author, Dieter Wolke.
“This is a testament to resiliency and coping,” added Wolke, a professor of developmental psychology and individual differences at Warwick Medical School in Coventry, England.
A very premature baby is one born before 32 weeks’ gestation. A very low birth weight is fewer than 3.3 pounds.
Being born very prematurely or with a very low birth-weight is linked to a higher risk of death, long-term health problems and higher costs, according to the study’s authors.
These children may have trouble in many areas of life including motor, thinking and memory skills. Some may be unable to live independently as adults. They’re also less likely to have a steady job or romantic partner, the researchers noted.
How these factors might affect the parents’ quality of life hadn’t been well-studied.
To get a better idea of how parents fare as very premature babies grow up, the researchers reviewed a whole-population study done in Germany. They looked at all births between January 1985 and March 1986.
Families of 219 very premature or very low birth-weight babies completed questionnaires for the study, along with the families of 227 babies who were born full-term.
When the children were grown — average age 27 — parents completed a quality-of-life survey designed by the World Health Organization.
The researchers found that parents of very premature or very low birth-weight babies were as happy by the time their kids reached adulthood as parents of full-term babies. Among the factors that didn’t affect parents’ quality of life included a child’s disability, academic achievement or how good the parent-child relationship was during childhood.
But the child’s mental health and peer relationships while growing up were crucial.
“We found that having good mental health and good peer relationships in childhood makes parents have a more satisfied life. Expressed simply, parents are happy if their children were happy in childhood and have friends,” Wolke said.
Another factor seemed to matter a lot to parents, he said, and that was support.
“Families of [preemies] grew stronger together as they needed more help from grandparents, siblings, uncles and friends. Most described how this bonded the family closer together. It is likely this social support helped,” Wolke said.
The findings are important for counseling parents, he said.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel they often cannot see with the initial shock and completely appropriate worries of the future at the beginning of their very premature or very low birth-weight child’s life,” Wolke said.
Dr. Pinchi Srinivasan is director of neonatology at New York-Presbyterian Queens hospital in New York City. He reviewed the study’s findings.
“This study is reassuring for parents. Stress is generally in the first year, but we have a lot of support systems now, like early intervention programs and parental support groups,” he said.
Both experts said it’s unclear if these results would be replicated in the United States. Germany has universal healthcare, they pointed out, so parents there wouldn’t have the same stress over medical costs that American parents might.
The study was published Aug. 10 in the journal Pediatrics.
Another recent study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, also had good news for parents of premature children.
It reported that kids born prematurely seem to do just fine in school. Two-thirds were ready to start kindergarten on time, and nearly 2 percent achieved gifted status. Babies born at 25 weeks and later scored only slightly lower on standardized tests than kids who were born full-term.
To read about managing parental stress, visit the American Psychological Association.