When a baby is born prematurely , it faces possible well-known health problems, such as respiratory failure if the lungs are not mature enough or jaundice , when due to an excess of bilirubin they have yellowish skin.
In addition, there is an increasing awareness that these babies “are more likely to develop a neurodevelopmental disorder,” explains Rosanna Marí Vico, associate professor of the UOC’s Health Sciences Studies.
Thus, “according to scientific studies, 20% of premature children have features of autism spectrum disorder ( ASD ), while this disorder affects 1.8% of full-term children,” says Marí Vico. There are also 19% of premature infants with features associated with language disorders (TEL), while among the general population the figure is 7%. In addition, they have a 2.6 times greater risk than those born at term of suffering an attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity.
These neurodevelopmental problems in premature babies – which are those born before the 37th week of gestation – are mainly linked to two factors. This is the weight at birth and the week of gestation in which delivery occurred. But, in addition, it must be borne in mind that the brain of a premature child is more immature than that of a child who is born at term and that being born prematurely may involve long hospital admissions, sometimes with intubation to guarantee the baby’s breathing. ” This condition limits the child’s experience in relation to his environment, the stimuli they receive are different», Explains Rosanna Marí Vico, who is a speech therapist and works in the Early Stimulation Unit of the Neurology Service of the Sant Joan de Déu Hospital.
” It is essential that a speech therapy professional can prevent, detect and treat these speech , communication and swallowing disorders early in premature babies ,” says Marí Vico.
According to the expert, during the first years of a child’s life, his central nervous system has great neuronal plasticity and this characteristic of the brain makes him much more capable of stimulating himself. In addition, as the child grows, this flexibility will decrease and it will be more difficult to deal with these problems. However, if difficulties are detected very early, « the baby can be stimulated early and thus increase the neural interconnections . The child will have more capacity to assimilate and integrate new experiences than if it is done when he is older, “explains Marí Vico.
The premature infants account for 8% of the total and already receive stimulation from some neonatal units. «Speech therapists stimulate the orofacial motor functions of children so that they have more mobility, better suction and better swallowing. But we also work with families, to whom we recommend talking and communicating with babies, since we know that it helps the emotional and cognitive development of children, “says Vico.
Family is key
When the child leaves the hospital, the role of the family remains essential. “We know that parents of premature children may be less or less stimulated to play with the child if they perceive it as very fragile,” explains Gemma Moya-Galé, associate professor of the UOC’s Studies in Psychology and Educational Sciences. , who is the editor of the book Evaluation and diagnosis in speech therapy at Editorial UOC.
“ It is important for the family to feel empowered to stimulate their child early . The best prevention comes from the family and it is important that they are not afraid to ask specialized professionals about what they suspect is not going well, “says Rosanna Marí.
In addition to speech therapists, it is important that other health professionals have a good understanding of the problems premature babies have in relation to neurodevelopment. For this reason, the UOC’s Speech Therapy degree (interuniversity: UVic-UCC, UOC) organizes the III Conference on Communication Disorders and Swallowing: Prematurity on March 28.
“Early detection of communication and swallowing pathologies by diverse health professionals in fields such as medicine, nursing, physical therapy, psychology or speech therapy is essential, so it is important that they have knowledge of these fields. However, it is essential that speech therapists specialized in premature populations intervene in the diagnosis and treatment of these pathologies. For this reason, the Conference is aimed at all these groups, “says Alfonso Igualada, director of the speech therapy degree and also co-editor of the book Difficulties of language in developmental disorders (vol. III), in which reference is made to the problems specific to premature babies, specifically in the chapter “Prematurity and language difficulties”, by the authors Laura Bosch Galceran