Premature babies face higher risk of maltreatment, study finds

Infants born before 37 weeks of gestation face a higher rate of maltreatment, according to a study published in Annals of Epidemiology.

For the study, researchers compared birth certificates and discharge records from hospital births of New York City residents between1995-2004. They also examined infants who were hospitalized within 12 months of their delivery. Researchers looked for 33 diagnosis codes commonly linked to maltreatment to identify alleged cases of infant maltreatment.

Researchers found infants born before 37 weeks were1.6 times more likely to be readmitted to a hospital within their first year of life for injuries commonly linked to maltreatment. Infants who had an extended stay in a neonatal intensive care were 1.8 times more likely to be readmitted, compared to infants who were not treated in a NICU.

"It is possible that these early challenges at birth contribute to the risk of later maltreatment because they are highly stressful and/or may disrupt normal parent-child attachment," Susan Mason, PhD, lead author and assistant professor at the Minneapolis-based University of Minnesota School of Public Health, said in a press release. "If this is the case, then intervening to reduce stress and focus on bonding in these families may be important."

The study's findings highlight the need for researchers, clinicians and policymakers to recognize maltreatment as a public health problem. She said states can aid maltreatment research by creating a way to link hospital records and birth certificates for researchers to understand and measure maltreatment, which can better inform policymakers.

"It is clear that maltreatment is a significant public health issue and prevention should be a major priority, yet we currently have little public health infrastructure or research focused on maltreatment prevention," Dr. Mason said in the press release. "A crucial starting point is to do a better job of measuring maltreatment so that we know who is at risk and why they are at risk, and ultimately find ways to prevent it."

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