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Can special play activities help premature babies with learning?

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Estimates suggest that around 9,000 babies are born very prematurely, before 32 weeks of pregnancy, every year in the UK.1-4 While better care has improved these vulnerable babies’ chances of surviving, their early arrival puts them at risk of developing a range of lifelong problems, including learning difficulties. Dr Ruth Ford of Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, is investigating whether babies’ learning and social skills improve if they are encouraged to take part in special play activities three months after their due date. Interventions that improve learning could benefit babies throughout childhood and beyond.

How are babies’ lives affected now?

All newborn babies are vulnerable, but those born very early are particularly so. They can face difficulties with breathing, feeding and fighting infections, and are at increased risk of developing lifelong disabilities.

Some babies who are born very early, before the brain is fully developed, go on to experience learning difficulties and special educational needs. “It is not uncommon for children who were born very prematurely to have a tendency to be impulsive and inattentive, which can impair their social interactions and interfere with school work,” says Dr Ford. “They can have problems with reading and arithmetic, for example.”

“There is an urgent need to find new ways to improve babies’ learning and spare them, as much as possible, from learning difficulties,” says Dr Ford. “It would be especially good to find things that help during the first few months of life, when the brain is developing very rapidly.”


How could this research help?

The team is investigating whether babies who are born very prematurely could benefit from taking part in special play activities, supported by their parents, around three months after their original due date.

“Evidence suggests that just 10 minutes of certain play activities each day at this age helps babies who were born at full term to get better at moving and exploring objects, activities that are essential to learning,” says Dr Ford. These simple, quick and inexpensive play activities also seem to improve babies’ social understanding and their ability to interact with caregivers. The benefits seem to persist for months after babies stop taking part in the play activities.

“We believe babies who are born very prematurely may benefit from these play activities too, and this funding gives us an exciting opportunity to find out whether that’s true,” says Dr Ford.


1. Office for National Statistics. Tables on births and infant deaths, by gestation, England only. Table 4b. Website accessed 16 January 2017.

2. Office for National Statistics. Births in England and Wales: 2015. Live births, stillbirths, and the intensity of childbearing measured by the total fertility rate. Website accessed 16 January 2017.

3. National Records of Scotland. 2015 Births, Deaths and Other Vital Events - Preliminary Annual Figures. Website accessed 16 January 2017.

4. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). Births. Website accessed 16 January 2017.



Project Leader Dr Ruth M Ford PhD
Project Team Professor Sarah Redsell PhDDr Samantha Johnson PhDDr Angela D'Amore MBBS
Project Location Department of Psychology, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge
Project Location Other School of Nursing and Midwifery, Anglia Ruskin University, CambridgeDepartment of Health Sciences, University of LeicesterNICU, Rosie Maternity Hospital, Cambridge
Project duration 3 years
Date awarded 21 November 2016
Project start date 1 November 2017
Project end date 31 July 2022
Grant amount £134,594
Grant code GN2542


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