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December 2015



Neurobehavioral disabilities occur in 5–15 % of preterm infants with an estimated 50–70 % of very low birth weight preterm infants experiencing later dysfunction, including cognitive, behavioral, and social delays that often persist into adulthood. Factors implicated in poor neurobehavioral and developmental outcomes are hospitalization in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and inconsistent caregiving patterns. Although much underlying brain damage occurs in utero or shortly after birth, neuroprotective strategies can stop lesions from progressing, particularly when these strategies are used during the most sensitive periods of neural plasticity occurring months before term age. The purpose of this randomized trial is to test the effect of a patterned feeding experience on preterm infants’ neurobehavioral organization and development, cognitive function, and clinical outcomes.


This trial uses an experimental, longitudinal, 2-group design with 120 preterm infants. Infants are enrolled within the first week of life and randomized to an experimental group receiving a patterned feeding experience from the first gavage feeding through discharge or to a control group receiving usual feeding care experience. The intervention involves a continuity of tactile experiences associated with feeding to train and build neuronal networks supportive of normal infant feeding experience. Primary outcomes are neurobehavioral organization as measured by Neurobehavioral Assessment of the Preterm Infant at 3 time points: the transition to oral feedings, NICU discharge, and 2 months corrected age. Secondary aims are cognitive function measured using the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development, Third Edition at 6 months corrected age, neurobehavioral development (sucking organization, feeding performance, and heart rate variability), and clinical outcomes (length of NICU stay and time to full oral feeding). The potential effects of demographic and biobehavioral factors (perinatal events and conditions of maternal or fetal/newborn origin and immunologic and genetic biomarkers) on the outcome variables will also be considered.


Theoretically, the intervention provided at a critical time in neurologic system development and associated with a recurring event (feeding) should enhance neural connections that may be important for later development, particularly language and other cognitive and neurobehavioral organization skills.


Copyright © Pickler et al. 2015 This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly credited. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

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VCU Biomedical Engineering Publications