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Pre-Term French Children Particularly Vulnerable When Parents Split

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

It has long been known that parental separation and divorce have a negative impact on children’s development. The findings, however, have been almost as varied as the studies themselves: While some studies have indicated a stronger negative effect on elementary-school-age children, others have suggested that the damage is worse for adolescents. 

To take this question further, a group of French medical researchers seek to assess the impact of parental separation on pre-term children—i.e., those delivered before 35 weeks gestation—whom they suspect might be a population even more vulnerable than their term peers.

To conduct their study, the researchers glean data from pre-term infants enrolled in the LIFT program (Loire Infant Follow-up Team), born between January 2003 and December 2010. The LIFT program includes information from 24 maternity clinics in the Pays-de-la-Loire administrative region of France. The sample was further restricted to those infants deemed neurodevelopmentally “optimal” at age two. Follow-up visits were routinely conducted by trained physicians. At age five, instead of a physician visit, the evaluation was based on a questionnaire filled out by the child’s teachers. This “GSA” score (Global School Adaptation) has been widely used by the French Ministry of Education to assess how children in their school systems are doing.

For parental separation, the LIFT cohort offered information only on whether parents were living together or separately, not on their marital status. The researchers chose to focus on very early parental separations, and thus divided their group of infants into three categories: infants whose parents were together, infants whose parents had separated prior to two years of age, and infants whose parents had separated between the ages of three and five.

The effects were unequivocal: “Our results indicated that, for preterm infants that had an optimal neurodevelopment at two years, parental separation was associated with a decrease in school performance at five years of age that was independent of their socioeconomic background.” The researchers also find that this association only seemed to exist for children whose parents had separated when the children were between ages three and five, and not for those in the under-two group. “Furthermore,” the researchers continue, “parental separations were associated with a decrease in the child’s motivation, engagement, autonomy, and manual dexterity.” The researchers also found that GSA scores for preterm children whose parents had separated were notably lower than for term children whose parents had separated, suggesting that “Preterm infants could indeed be more sensitive to stressful situations such as parental separation.”

The researchers suggest that for a follow-up study, “it would be of considerable interest to investigate long-term effects of parental separation,” as other studies “have reported that there may be more of an impact on long-term consequences in regard to achievements and quality of life as adults than on the short-term emotional effects in children.” 

This is a troubling warning indeed, as it indicates that as severe as the consequences are for young preterm children, they may be even worse later on in life. The researchers close by suggesting that “specific support” might be offered to preterm children whose parents had separated. A better recommendation would be to encourage parents to stay together.

(S. Nusinovici, B. Olliac, C. Flamant, et. al, “Impact of parental separation or divorce on school performance in preterm children: A population-based study,” PLoS ONE 13.9 [September 2018]: e0202080, Web.)