Babies born prematurely may have trouble bonding with their parents as a result of “neurological impairments,” according to a study published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood: Fetal and Neonatal Edition.

Researchers from the University of Warwick in the UK found the majority of premature babies with a very low birth weight were securely attached to their parents, but were at almost double the risk of “disorganized attachment.” This is when a child displays conflicting behavior within the parent-child relationship.

The study analyzed 71 premature babies – born at or before 32 weeks of gestation and weighing less than 1,500g (3Ib 5oz) – and 105 full-term infants. The normal pregnancy term is between 38 and 42 weeks.

Results from the study showed that of the very premature infants, 62% were securely attached to their parents, compared with 72% of full-term infants.

However, 32% of premature infants showed symptoms of “disorganized attachment” at 18 months, compared with 17% of full-term children.

Professor Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick, says:

“Very preterm children often spend months in incubators and in hospital after birth. Despite this stressful start we found parents of very preterm children to be as sensitive in their parenting as those of healthy preterm children.

“However, very preterm children more often have neurological and developmental problems and these explained why they were more likely to be disorganized in their attachment or bonding despite sensitive parenting.”

As a part of the study, the researchers analyzed the way in which mothers interacted with their babies.

The effect of premature birth on attachment between babies and their mothers was observed in the study even though the mothers of the premature children were just as sensitive in their parenting as mothers of full-term babies.

The researchers say that in full-term infants, disorganized attachment can be a sign of negative parenting and abuse.

An article in The Trauma and Mental Health Report says that disorganized attachment “occurs when the caregiver mistreats the child, frequently frightens the child, miscommunicates feelings, and has highly unrealistic expectations of the child.”

The researchers say, however, that this most recent study suggests that disorganized attachment is linked to neurological abnormalities, not the level of maternal sensitivity that the parents provide.

Wolke adds: “Health professionals should be aware that disorganized attachment in preterm children is often a sign of these children’s developmental problems and not because they are harshly or abusively parented.”

The researchers add that previous research from the University of Warwick also reveals that sensitive parenting helps premature children when they are older, aged between six to eight years. They add that parents of premature infants should “take heart” in these findings.