Home visits made by nurses and other healthcare professionals have been shown to strengthen relationships between parents and preemies — infants who were born pre-term and must receive specialized care to avoid life-threatening complications, a recent study finds.

The study, performed by researchers at the University of Cincinnati and Children’s Hospital Cincinnati Medical Center, comes against a backdrop proposed by The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which has reserved funding for mother-child assistance programs for premature births. Dr. Neera Goyal, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital Cincinnati Medical Center and lead author of the study, said the study’s finding bolstered the plan.

"Overall the trend did seem to support that it is effective," she told Reuters Health.

The study included 2,983 babies across 17 separate studies examining preterm births. Goyal and her team looked at five categories, which included infant development, parent-child interaction, morbidity (illness), abuse and neglect, and growth and nutrition.

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Providers who visited the home maintained a consistent once- or twice-weekly attendance schedule that sometimes lasted as short as eight weeks, but in other cases, continued up to three years. Nine of the 17 studies, or 516 babies, showed improvements in child development. Six studies, or 336 babies, showed progress in parent-child development.

The remaining three categories showed no significant improvement.

"Federal dollars are being invested to home visiting that basically will provide some stability and allow for long range planning for home visiting services," Goyal told Reuters Health. "This provides an opportunity to think about how we can tailor this intervention now to subgroups and really improve the impact and the efficacy of this intervention overall for our high risk communities."

The current infrastructure for assisting preemies and their mothers places responsibility mainly on state and local programs. There are 400 programs operating today, which collectively serves 500,000 U.S. families, the researchers noted in their report.

According to Goyal’s team, the research on preemie health after in-home care was overdue, as the last serious examination took place some 20 years ago and can no longer reliably reflect the current trends. Since the last study, 20 percent more babies are born premature.

Goyal’s team noted additional research is needed to unearth differences in care for moderate-preterm babies (born between 32 and 34 weeks' gestation) and late-preterm babies (born between 34 and 36 weeks’ gestation). Recent research has shown that these two groups comprise 70 percent of all preterm births.

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"This is really a significant group to focus on," Goyal said.

In the U.S., roughly 11 percent of births occur prematurely, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most infant death is a result of preterm-related problems than from any other cause, and those that survive may face lifelong complications. These include cerebral palsy, hearing loss, intellectual deficiencies, visual problems, and digestive trouble.

Risk factors include chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. The CDC reports black women are 50 percent more likely to give birth prematurely than white women, although the cause for this phenomenon is unknown and currently being researched.