Premature baby’s brain is affected by what their parents do for a living

We know children brought up in deprived environments generally don’t do as well in life as those who enjoy a more comfortable upbringing.

But I confess I was deeply shocked by research showing premature babies from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have problems with brain development than early babies from better off homes.

These findings come from scanning the brains of 170 prem babies around the mother’s expected due date and then checking the data against ­socioeconomic status (SES) – factors such as their parents’ ­education and ­neighbourhood deprivation levels.

Around 60,000 babies are born ­pre-term – before 37 weeks – in the UK each year and it’s the biggest cause of death and disability among newborn babies. And this is the first study to show SES can impact brain ­development in premature babies.

The Edinburgh team of researchers divided the scans into 85 areas to examine changes in brain structure.

Importantly, they found parental social inequalities – particularly parental education and employment – were linked to most brain changes. This suggests family social ­inequalities have a greater impact in determining brain development than other ­measures of SES.

It’s clear targeted support for parents facing socioeconomic ­challenges could boost the brain health of pre-term babies during their first weeks of life.

Crucially, a number of brain changes and functions could be affected in a child’s development and learning ability. So they’ll be tracked in a new study of future behaviour and learning in babies as they grow up.

Professor James Boardman, of ­Edinburgh University, and lead researcher, said: “For a long time, scientists have focused on discovering the medical issues and care practices that can affect premature babies’ brain development. Now, we’ve found that social factors are very important, too. This presents exciting new ­opportunities because targeted support to families who need it the most could promote healthier brain development and improve outcomes of babies born too soon.”

The research was pioneered at the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory at Edinburgh University’s project, Theirworld, the global children’s charity whose chairman is Sarah Brown, wife of Gordon Brown.

Sarah, who lost her premature baby daughter, Jennifer, at just 10 days old, said: “This latest research marks another breakthrough in Theirworld’s mission to give all children the best start in life. We set up the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory in 2004 to find answers to why babies were being born too early and what we could do to support their development.

“I’m so proud of the extraordinary and sustained progress being made by Professor James Boardman and the team to find these answers and to ensure babies have a greater chance not just to survive, but also to thrive.”