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Schore’s Regulation Theory: Maternal–Infant Interaction in the NICU as a Mechanism for Reducing the Effects of Allostatic Load on Neurodevelopment in Premature Infants

Schore’s Regulation Theory: Maternal–Infant Interaction in the NICU as a Mechanism for Reducing the Effects of Allostatic Load on Neurodevelopment in Premature Infants

Abstract

Premature infants confront numerous physiologic and environmental stressors in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) that have the potential to permanently alter their neurodevelopment. Schore’s regulation theory postulates that positive maternal–infant interactions can shape the infant’s developmental outcomes through inducing mechanistic changes in brain structure and function. The purposes of this article are to explain the regulation of infant neurobiological processes during interactions between mothers and healthy infants in the context of Schore’s theory, to identify threats to these processes for premature infants, and to propose principles of clinical practice and areas of research necessary to establish a supportive environment and prevent or reduce maladaptive consequences for these vulnerable infants. A premature birth results in the disruption of neurodevelopment at a critical time. Chronic exposure to stressors related to the NICU environment overwhelms immature physiologic and stress systems, resulting in significant allostatic load, as measured by long-term neurodevelopmental impairments in the premature infant. Positive maternal–infant interactions during NICU hospitalization and beyond have the potential to reduce neurologic deficits and maximize positive neurodevelopmental outcomes in premature infants. The quality of the maternal–infant interaction is affected not only by the infant’s developing neurobiology but also by the mother’s responses to the stressors surrounding a premature birth and mothering an infant in the NICU environment. Nurses can empower mothers to overcome these stressors, promote sensitive interactions with their infants, and facilitate neurodevelopment. Research is critically needed to develop and test nursing interventions directed at assisting mothers in supporting optimal neurodevelopment for their infants.
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