Trajectories of Externalizing and Internalizing Behaviors in Preterm Children Admitted to a Neonatal Intensive Care Unitedit
To examine the trajectories of internalizing and externalizing behavior problems of preterm children between 16 months and 6 years of age and predictors of trajectories, including gestational age, child dysregulation, maternal depression, socioeconomic status, and parenting. This longitudinal study followed 148 children and their mothers from neonatal intensive care unit discharge until 6 years of age. Gestational ages ranged from 23 to 36 weeks. The study included assessment of maternal-reported behavior problems, maternal depression, neonatal and socioeconomic characteristics, and observations of dysregulated behavior and parenting. Trajectories were identified with a semiparametric group-based analytic method, and multinomial logistic regression was used to identify significant risk factors. Three distinct trajectories for preterm children were found for both internalizing and externalizing behavior problems. For the 2 groups with greater behavior problems (groups 1 and 2), trajectories reached their peak between 24 and 36 months of age, then leveled off or decreased. Group 3 showed a stable low level of externalizing behaviors, and a low, but slightly increasing level of internalizing behaviors. Maternal depression, child dysregulation, gestational age, and socioeconomic challenges were identified as risk factors that predicted less optimal behavior problem trajectories. Children born prematurely followed 1 of 3 distinct developmental trajectories for both internalizing and externalizing behavior problems. The most severe behavior problems started early in development and were associated with increased child dysregulation, maternal depression, and lower socioeconomic status. These findings have implications for screening and monitoring preterm children.