A preemie’s development – her physical, intellectual, communication and social abilities - may be much different from a full-term child’s. Understanding these developmental differences could address your concerns and help you better support your child. This article is part of the DreamBig, an education series by Abbott, which aims to spread awareness on prematurity and help turn small starts into big futures.
When your child becomes interested in her surroundings, you will eagerly anticipate developmental milestones, such as sitting up, crawling, walking and talking. Every parent celebrates these achievements, even more so parents of preemies. Hence the higher level of anticipation.
Mums of preemies should keep in mind that preemies’ development is a process, not a race for developmental goals.
In this article, we explain preemies’ development in various aspects including motor, cognitive, communication and social development.
Physical (Motor) Development in Preemies
A full-term baby spends the last few months of pregnancy in a flexed position, moving in a nicely cushioned environment. This is a position whereby his arms and legs are tucked into the chest or abdomen, head and neck bent towards the chest and the body rounded forward. By pushing against the fluid and uterus, the baby muscles eventually grow to become stronger and more responsive to position changes and movement.
On the contrary, a preemie will be in a loose and uncontrolled environment and therefore have relatively weaker muscle strength and decreased responsiveness. This makes it challenging for him to move against gravity and control his movements.
Mums, for motor development delays, it is important to intervene early. A physiotherapist or occupational therapist can assess your preemie through formal assessments, and administer intervention if necessary.
Cognitive Development in Preemies
Babies’ early learning comes from sensing – by processing what he gains through seeing, hearing, smelling tasting and touching. Thinking abilities develop as babies learns to imitate and problem-solve (find, sort and use information). The process of developing thinking skills requires trial and error and repetition.
For preemies with delayed learning skills, impairment to senses, or weak hand-eye coordination skills will require more repetition play and hence a longer time to develop thinking skills.
That said, mums, you should also remember that the human brain is a remarkable organ. During the early years of a child’s life, the brain is able to reorganize connections and even rebuild damaged connections, leading to leaps in a child’s cognitive development.
As such, most healthy preemies can catch up to their full-term peers in intellectual abilities by two to three years of age.
Those with long-term medical problems, significant sensory difficulties, or disabilities may continue to have cognitive difficulties of varying degrees throughout life, “including development of signs and symptoms associated with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These signs and symptoms can have negative impact on their social, intellectual, and academic development“, as advised by Virginia Frisk, Ph.D., C. Psych.
How different do preemies develop in terms of communication and social skills? Find out more about the developmental milestones of preemies on the next page.