Link copied to clipboard

Parents of premature and low-birth-weight babies know their children may lag behind other kids. They know their child’s chronological age is at odds with his developmental age – the newborn who is a month premature is a month younger, developmentally than other newborns – and they also know that this lag is persistent.

Premature and low-birth-weight babies (babies born at less than 32 weeks gestation or weighing less than 3lb 5oz) often have other health and neurological issues that put them behind their peers.

All this has meant that tiny babies grow up to struggle in school. Now there’s evidence that careful parenting can turn things around.

Researchers at the University of Warwick (England) studied the ways parents interacted with their six-year-olds who were “very premature” or very small at birth. They then measured these children’s school success later, at age 13.

They found that children of “highly sensitive parents” did very well in school. “Sensitive parenting” was defined as adjusting to fit the child’s behavior and responses, setting age-appropriate limits, and avoiding being overly permissive. In contrast, children whose parents were less-well attuned to them required more special education help and had more difficulty in school by age 13.

In addition, providing an intellectually stimulating environment, with interesting experiences, opportunities for creative thinking, and guidance in problem solving benefited both six-year-old children who were born premature/low-birth-weight and six-year-olds who were full-term babies.

Dieter Wolke of University of Warwick suggested “providing gentle feedback and suggesting potential solutions rather than taking over and solving the tasks for the child.” He says, “Cognitively stimulating parenting is where parents include activities designed to get children thinking such as reading to them or doing puzzles together.”

The factors identified as part of “sensitive parenting” and a stimulating environment are part of what has long been considered the ideal parenting style, good for all children.

What does this mean for us?

  1. No matter how big your child was when she was born or how full-term she was, sensitive parenting makes sense and helps ensure your child’s success.
  2. Even if you haven’t been a “highly sensitive” parent so far, there is still time. The children in this study were six when the study began. While we can assume their parents had been “sensitive” all along, starting to be more attuned to a child’s needs during elementary school should pay off.
  3. As always, early intervention is better than intervening late. Don’t wait for problems to develop but be proactive. Give your child what he needs to develop well.

Everyone wants the best for his or her children. There’s a lot that parents can do to encourage good outcomes. This holds especially for the tiniest babies but it’s true for your baby too!

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.