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The importance of parent-child interaction for the development of premature infants

Do fathers of early-borns establish a connection with the child faster than the mothers?

In the past 30 years, early-borns' chances of survival have improved significantly. However, long-term research has made it clear that the consequences of a premature birth continue long past infancy, and that early-borns might suffer physical, mental, cognitive and schooling problems and disorders. Doctors involved in this issue would like to identify the factors that will give early-borns a higher chance to develop normally, and would like to know how to prevent the negative consequences of a premature birth. A often discussed factor is the quality of the mother-child relationship. Clinical experience has intensified the focus on the father-child relationship, as it has been observed that fathers can often establish a better relationship with the early-born infant, presumably because they are less traumatised by the birth.

In addition to the mother-child interaction, we also want to investigate the father-child interaction with early-borns. We assume that fathers of early-born infants can establish a better connection with the child after the birth than the mother, and that fathers act as an intermediary between mother and child, thereby exerting a positive influence on the mother-child interaction.

Our hypothesis is that fathers of early-borns establish a connection with the child faster than the mothers, and compared to fathers of full-term babies, fathers of early-borns can boast better father-child interaction. Finally we suspect that the stress experienced during birth by fathers of early-borns is heavier than the stress suffered by fathers of full-term babies, but still less than the stress suffered by their partners, the mothers of early-borns.

Study design
The objective is to recruit a group of 40 early-borns (babies born before the 34th week of pregnancy) with both their parents, and to study this group. A control group of 30 full-term babies (babies born during or after the 37th week of pregnancy) has already been recruited. The quality of the father-child and mother-child interaction will be measured against the CARE index. The way in which the child's birth was experienced will be measured with the SILGer questionnaire. Perinatal risks will be assessed on the basis of the time spent on a ventilator and the time spent in hospital. The investigation will also include other control variables. Examinations will take place approx. 10 weeks after the birth but, for the early-borns, at least two weeks after their discharge from the clinic.
A senior physician from the Clinic of Neonatology at the Zurich University Hospital (co-applicant) is also involved in the project. He will contact the families. All mothers and (after their consent has been obtained) all fathers will be informed of the investigation as soon as possible (if possible within two weeks of the birth).

Babies born prematurely are at higher risk of many development problems, including late development, and there is also a greater risk that the mother and – less intensely – the father will suffer from post-traumatic stress. If it should be confirmed that fathers of early-borns are quicker to establish contact with the early-born infant and also help the mothers to establish contact with the child, the importance of integrating the father in the psychiatric treatment given to parents of early-borns will be underlined.

Project leader


Dr. Sven Wellmann, Universitätsspital Zürich, Klinik für Neonatologie

Andrea Studer-Burkhard
Barbara Bachmann