SAN ANTONIO - Researchers at University Hospital are participating in a Columbia University study to examine the importance of bonding between mothers and babies born prematurely.
Doctors and nurses will follow the progress of preemies whose mothers will be taught on how to bond with them while they are in Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
"We have to prove this is actually better than the old concept, which was, 'Leave them alone, they'll do better by themselves,'" said Dr. Alice Gong, the site's principal investigator, University Hospital neonatologist and UT Health pediatrics professor.
About one in 10 babies in the United States was born prematurely in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preemies are sent to NICU, where they are somewhat isolated from their parents. Gong said babies can miss out on the "co-regulation" that mothers and child born on schedule work on through countless interactions.
Many preemies develop behavioral and learning problems later in life, and their brain development "is not optimal," Gong said.
But a previous Columbia University study found better brain activity, better performance on ADHD and autism screening tests, better cognitive abilities and better speech development from the preemies whose mothers were taught how to connect with them while they were in the NICU, Gong said.
"Just about six hours -- less than six hours a week that the mothers have contact with their babies. They make big changes," Gong said.
NICU nurses are teaching mothers like Julie Hernandez how to bond with their children through touch, sight, hearing and scent during one hour to hour-and-a-half long visits four times a week.
"I mean you wouldn't imagine just this small touch would help them develop as much as it does," Hernandez said, as she touched her son's stomach.
The mothers in the "intervention" part of the study also read stories to their children and pass a scent cloth so their babies will have something with their mother's scent on it.
Gong said researchers plan to follow about 60 children born prematurely at the hospital until they are about 5 years old. Researchers will observe the differences between children who got the normal standard of care in the NICU and those whose mothers were trained on how to bond with their babies.
"We may be able to decrease things like autism, you know? Learning disabilities," Gong said. "Kids who don't have language delays. I think it can have huge impacts."
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