Objectives: Our goal was to compare the prevalence of behavioral problems between very preterm children and term children at 3 years of age and examine the factors associated with behavioral problems in very preterm children.
Methods: We conducted a prospective population-based cohort study: the EPIPAGE (Etude Epidémiologique sur les Petits Ages Gestationnels) study. All infants born between 22 and 32 weeks of gestation in 9 regions of France in 1997 were included and compared with a control group of infants born at term. Sociodemographic status, obstetric, and neonatal data were collected at birth and in the neonatal units. At 3 years of age, the behavioral problems of 1228 very preterm singleton children without major neurodisabilities, and 447 term children were studied using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire completed by the parents.
Results: Very preterm children were more likely than controls to have behavioral difficulties. Among very preterm children, several medical conditions were associated with a high total difficulty score: major neonatal cerebral lesions diagnosed by cranial ultrasonographic studies, hospitalization within the last year, poor health, and psychomotor delay. A high birth order and sociodemographic factors such as young maternal age and low educational level of the mother were also identified as risk factors for behavioral difficulties. The differences between very preterm children and controls remained significant after adjustment for sociodemographic characteristics, neonatal complications, and neurodevelopmental status, for a high total difficulties score, hyperactivity, conduct problems, and for peer problems. For emotional problems, the difference was at the limit of significance.
Conclusions: Very preterm children have a higher risk of behavioral problems at 3 years of age compared with term-born children. Health and neurodevelopmental status of the child were significantly associated with behavioral difficulties.