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Mom's attention benefits tiny newborns for years

By Staff
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NEW YORK, May 2 (Reuters) A mother's attentiveness early in life makes an important difference in tiny preemies' development, even through elementary school, according to a study.

Extremely underweight newborns are at risk of serious medical complications immediately after birth, as well as long-term developmental problems. But research has shown that when mothers are consistently responsive to their babies' needs, these children are less likely to have developmental delays as preschoolers.

The new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, suggests that these benefits last throughout elementary school -- particularly when a child did not have severe complications as a newborn.

Dr Karen E. Smith of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston led the research, part of an ongoing study of 360 children born between 1990 and 1992. Many of these children were born at a very low weight -- around 2 pounds, on average -- while the rest were normal-weight, term newborns.

The researchers looked at whether a mother's responsiveness to her child during infancy and early childhood was related to intellectual development through the age of 10. They judged responsiveness by observing mothers and children interacting at home.

In general, the study found, when mothers reacted promptly to their child's ''signals,'' were affectionate, used a positive tone of voice, and offered praise and encouragement, their children showed stronger intellectual development.

This was particularly true when mothers consistently showed this parenting style throughout infancy and the preschool years.

''An encouraging finding was that, despite the increased risk for slower cognitive growth found for those born at a (very low birthweight), responsive parenting was able to moderate this risk,'' Smith and her colleagues write.

Such parents, the researchers explain, help their children build trust, and may also provide greater stimulation that enhances their learning skills - something that could be particularly important for children born at a very low weight.

The benefits of responsive parenting were not as evident among children who had severe complications after birth, such as significant bleeding in the brain and serious lung dysfunction.

These ''biologically fragile'' children, the study authors note, may have some developmental challenges that parenting skills alone cannot overcome.

Still, the researchers conclude, the findings underscore the importance of parents' attentiveness in all young children's development. If parents can be taught to use such skills throughout early childhood, they note, that could put children on a ''positive developmental trajectory'' that lasts for years.

REUTERS SHB HT0847

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