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Grant to reduce parental stress and infant developmental delay

Press release issued: 23 August 2004

A £502,000 grant to reduce parental stress and infant developmental delay after premature birth has been awarded to Andrew Whitelaw, Professor of Neonatal Medicine by the Health Foundation.

A £502,000 grant to reduce parental stress and infant developmental delay after premature birth has been awarded to Andrew Whitelaw, Professor of Neonatal Medicine at Bristol University by the Health Foundation.

The Premature Infant Parenting Study, through multicentre trials, will assess whether the Parent Baby Interaction Programme can reduce parental stress and depression in the short-term (three months past term) and reduce developmental delay in the longer term (age two years).

Trial manager and neonatal nurse, Chrissie Israel, developed the Parent Baby Interaction Programme following many years of neonatal intensive care nursing and experience with a previous research trial.  The Programme helps both mother and baby as soon as possible after birth and is unique in focussing on the mother rather than nurses to give appropriate stimulation during these early weeks.  The mother learns to “read the signals” from the baby.  Sometimes the baby will need peace and security with minimal disturbance. At other times, the baby will be alert and open to appropriate stimulation, be it touch, sight or sound.  In this way the baby experiences reduced stress, and optimal stimulation and the mother gains confidence and knowledge of her baby’s responses and behaviour. 

‘Babies who are born before 32 weeks have a period of two to three months which is very abnormal and different from what nature intends.  Instead of being secure, warm, cushioned, free of pain and in the dark, these infants are subjected to well intentioned intensive care with tubes in the windpipe, needles in veins and arteries, constant noise and light, and frequent handling,’ explains Professor Whitelaw. 

Furthermore, parents are unable to cuddle and feed their baby and fear that their child may die or be damaged.  The sick premature infant is unable to respond as a full term infant would and the anxious mother feels powerless to help.  Stress and depression can often occur and have a prolonged effect on the mother’s ability to care for and bring up the child later.’

Professor Whitelaw added: ‘I am delighted to have been awarded this grant by the Health Foundation.  There has been international interest in this trial and if the results are positive then the Parent Baby Interaction Programme is likely to be copied in neonatal units around the world.’

The results on parental stress and depression will be available later this year and the infant development findings in 2006.

231 mothers and babies are taking part in the trial.

The trial, based at Southmead Hospital, Bristol, is a collaboration with the Universities of Nottingham and Cambridge.  The seven neonatal units taking part are: Southmead Hospital and St Michael’s Hospital, Bristol; Queen’s Medical Centre, Nottingham; Nottingham City Hospital; Leicester Royal Infirmary; Gloucester Royal Hospital and Cheltenham General Hospital.

Babies born before 32 weeks gestation have a high frequency of developmental disabilities, some affecting movement, others affecting learning and others affecting behaviour.  Some of these disabilities are caused by injury to the immature brain by haemorrhage, lack of oxygen or infection and these injuries can often be confirmed by brain scanning.  However, many children who have been born prematurely have learning and behaviour problems with no obvious injury on brain scan.  It is thought that these problems may relate more to the software of the brain than the hardware.  The brain grows and develops partly as a result of genetic programming and partly as a result of stimuli.  Vision and communication are functions that are very stimulus dependent.  Furthermore, prolonged stress and discomfort, with the associated stress hormones, can reduce brain growth.

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