Early identification of infants with developmental impairment is crucial in order to provide those children and their families with the needed support and therapy to optimize function. Neonatal therapists play an important role in assessing development and function of infants in the NICU through standardized testing and specific clinical observations. Even parents of healthy term infants whom we know outside of work may approach us wanting to know if what their new baby is doing is ‘normal’.
In recent years, there have been strong efforts by several research groups to identify children who are most at risk for developmental delay at the earliest possible time in the lifespan. One group of researchers sought to determine if newborn visual skills, specifically average duration of gaze to stimuli, is associated with later development. Eighty infants between one and four days old looked at human faces and schematic face-like configurations on a screen and average dwell time (time spent looking at the stimuli during the experiment) was recorded. The infants tested were born full term and had a five minute Apgar score of above eight. At follow up (mean age 7.5 years), parents completed questionnaires including Italian versions of the short form of the Childhood Behaviour Questionnaire, the Temperament in Middle Childhood Questionnaire, and the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. The study found that shorter dwell time as a newborn is associated with increased impulsivity, hyperactivity, and behavioral problems in childhood.
When integrating this study into our practice as neonatal therapists, there are several important points to consider:
- The infants in this study were born term and presumably healthy, thus the results of this study may not generalize to the NICU population. Infants admitted to the NICU have a complex combination of medical and environmental factors that impact their visual skills.
- As neonatal therapists, we know that a baby’s abilities may differ greatly from one day to the next based on the environment and events of the day, so multiple assessments of visual attention helps us to determine an infant’s true abilities.
- Helping families to understand appropriate visual stimulation for their baby is an important aspect of the education we provide.
To access the full text version of the study titled Individual Differences in Newborn Visual Attention Associate with Temperament and Behavioral Difficulties in Later Childhood, visit http://www.nature.com/articles/srep11264#t2