OBJECTIVE. With the increased survival of very preterm infants, there is a growing concern for their developmental and socioemotional outcomes. The quality of the early mother–infant relationship has been noted as 1 of the factors that may exacerbate or soften the potentially adverse impact of preterm birth, particularly concerning the infant's later competencies and development. The first purpose of the study was to identify at 6 months of corrected age whether there were specific dyadic mother–infant patterns of interaction in preterm as compared with term mother–infant dyads. The second purpose was to examine the potential impact of these dyadic patterns on the infant's behavioral and developmental outcomes at 18 months of corrected age.

METHODS. During a 12-month period (January–December 1998), all preterm infants who were <34 weeks of gestational age and hospitalized at the NICU of the Lausanne University Hospital were considered for inclusion in this longitudinal prospective follow-up study. Control healthy term infants were recruited during the same period from the maternity ward of our hospital. Mother–infant dyads with preterm infants (n = 47) and term infants (n = 25) were assessed at 6 months of corrected age during a mother–infant play interaction and coded according to the Care Index. This instrument evaluates the mother's interactional behavior according to 3 scales (sensitivity, control, and unresponsiveness) and the child's interactional behavior according to 4 scales (cooperation, compliance, difficult, and passivity). At 18 months, behavioral outcomes of the children were assessed on the basis of a semistructured interview of the mother, the Symptom Check List. The Symptom Check List explores 4 groups of behavioral symptoms: sleeping problems, eating problems, psychosomatic symptoms, and behavioral and emotional disorders. At the same age, developmental outcomes were evaluated using the Griffiths Developmental Scales. Five areas were evaluated: locomotor, personal-social, hearing and speech, eye–hand coordination, and performance.

RESULTS. Among the possible dyadic patterns of interaction, 2 patterns emerge recurrently in mother–infant preterm dyads: a “cooperative pattern” with a sensitive mother and a cooperative-responsive infant (28%) and a “controlling pattern” with a controlling mother and a compulsive-compliant infant (28%). The remaining 44% form a heterogeneous group that gathers all of the other preterm dyads and is composed of 1 sensitive mother–passive infant; 10 controlling mothers with a cooperative, difficult, or passive infant; and 10 unresponsive mothers with a cooperative, difficult, or passive infant. Among the term control subjects, 68% of the dyads are categorized as cooperative pattern dyads, 12% as controlling pattern dyads, and the 20% remaining as heterogeneous dyads. At 18 months, preterm infants of cooperative pattern dyads have similar outcomes as the term control infants. Preterm infants of controlling pattern dyads have significantly fewer positive outcomes as compared with preterm infants of cooperative pattern dyads, as well as compared with term control infants. They display significantly more behavioral symptoms than term infants, including more eating problems than term infants as well as infants from cooperative preterm dyads. Infants of the controlling preterm dyads do not differ significantly for the total development quotient but have worse personal-social development than term infants and worse hearing-speech development than infants from cooperative preterm dyads. The preterm infants of the heterogeneous group have outcomes that can be considered as intermediate with no significant differences compared with preterm infants from the cooperative pattern or the controlling pattern dyads.

CONCLUSION. Among mother–preterm infant dyads, we identified 2 specific patterns of interaction that could play either a protective (cooperative pattern) or a risk-precipitating (controlling pattern) role on developmental and behavioral outcome, independent of perinatal risk factors and of the family's socioeconomic background. The controlling pattern is much more prevalent among preterm than term dyads and is related to a less favorable infant outcome. However, the cooperative pattern still represents almost 30% of the preterm dyads, with infants' outcome comparable to the ones of term infants. These results point out the impact of the quality of mother–infant relationship on the infant's outcome. The most important clinical implication should be to support a healthy parent–infant relationship already in the NICU but also in the first months of the infant's life. Early individualized family-based interventions during neonatal hospitalization and transition to home have been shown to reduce maternal stress and depression and increase maternal self-esteem and to improve positive early parent–preterm infant interactions.

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