Researching preterm babies as they begin to grow into childhood

Friday, 17 April 2020 - 11:16am

Most babies are born after about 40 weeks in the womb, but for a variety of reasons, there are also many children born early, or ‘preterm’.

 A birth is called preterm if it occurs before the start of the 37th week of pregnancy, right down to an “extremely” preterm birth after only 28 weeks or less of pregnancy.

Being born into the world early can sometimes affect a child’s chances of having a healthy start to life, and many children experience complications as a consequence of their preterm birth. Some of these are relatively obvious, such as problems with mobility or hearing. However, others may be more subtle. This is why this research is so important.

Enter research team leader Nenagh Kemp, an Associate Professor in the University of Tasmania’s School of Psychological Sciences. Nenagh developed her research interest into children born preterm when working with colleague Associate Professor Kimberley Norris to co-supervise then PhD student Sari O’Meagher. Building further collaborations from there, the team lined up for a new project to be funded by the Foundation is highly skilled!

Dr O’Meagher will bring expertise as a Clinical Neuropsychologist at the Royal Hobart Hospital (RHH), while the hands-on and theoretical knowledge of Dr Tony De Paoli, Director of the Neonatal and Paediatric Intensive Care Unit (NPICU) at the RHH will be invaluable. Professor Peter Anderson, Research Neuropsychologist at the Monash Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience, really adds vital and well-rounded expertise and insight.

Explaining more about her study, Nenagh explains that one of the key aspects of development that is often impacted in preterm children relates to “executive functioning” skills.

“These skills help us to plan ahead, work towards goals, and adapt to new situations. For example, a school-aged child might find it unusually hard to pack a school bag for the next day’s activities, prioritise homework, or deal with a sudden change of plans.

“These difficulties might not be as obvious to others as a problem with walking, but they can affect functioning at home and at school in important ways,” Assoc Prof Kemp said.

Potential problems associated with babies being born early are of particular concern for Tasmania, which has the country’s highest levels of preterm birth. The rates are currently over 11% in comparison to the national rate of 8-9%. Tasmania also has relatively low levels of literacy and socioeconomic status, two factors which can combine to create greater challenges for preterm children.

As a priority issue for Tasmania, this multidisciplinary, multiinstitutional research team has received a 2020 $25k Project Grant from the RHH Research Foundation to work out the most efficient ways to assess (and eventually try to improve) executive functioning in four-year-old children.

 “Although there’s quite a lot of research on executive functioning in older children, we need to know much more about how this skill-set develops in children as they’re starting kindergarten and learning to manage the demands of school.

“The team is excited about getting the study underway soon, with funding helping clinicians to identify the children most at risk of problems. This will mean we can provide families and teachers with specific information about children’s abilities to help with their home and educational support,” she said. More broadly, this vital funding will help Tasmanian researchers to continue to conduct cutting-edge research on some of the psychological outcomes of preterm birth which will benefit so many in years to come.

DONATE TODAY to local medical research in Tasmania.