For the socialist states of East-Central Europe, building a healthy society entailed securing the development of the new generations that came to the world. Especially fragile were infants born too early. This paper will explore how medical experts in East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia understood the risks in long-term ... (Show more)
For the socialist states of East-Central Europe, building a healthy society entailed securing the development of the new generations that came to the world. Especially fragile were infants born too early. This paper will explore how medical experts in East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia understood the risks in long-term development of children born preterm and what remedies they suggested.
In the first postwar decade, Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia suffered from high infant mortality rates, and prematurity was identified as their most frequent reason. As these mortality rates dropped during the 1950s with medical doctors able to save more and more babies, a new question emerged: what will become of these children when they grow up. In Czechoslovakia the further development of surviving babies began to appear as a concern already in the 1940s; in 1950s Poland, experts held optimistically that preterm-born infants would develop into full-fledged citizens later in their lives. Since the 1960s, as the survival rate of preterm babies increased, neurologists, psychologists and pediatricians started to investigate the long-term consequences these preterm babies may suffer. In the four countries, experts assessed preterm babies’ retardation in physical and mental development. In the late 1960s, neurologists and pediatricians focused mostly on the behavioral and mental disorders that premature-born children would develop later in their lives. They identified diseases, syndromes and delayed development during infancy and adolescence as directly related to preterm birth. School failure gained importance as investigations showed a correlation between prematurity and low school performance. Delayed mental development was considered acceptable in the period up to three years-old, however, pedagogues and psychologists saw that from three to six years premature children lagged behind the average and even after having reached school entry at the age of six, the linkage between prematurity and school failure did not fade away.
In the 1980s, the infant mortality rate of preterm babies kept decreasing and the survival rate of extremely small babies grew. Experts from Hungary, Poland and the GDR saw then how many problems plagued these kids. Premature and extremely small babies did no longer die but suffered from long-lasting problems and some experts began talking about “a problem for the whole society.” Prematurity ranked high among causes of misbehavior and drug abuse in adolescence and in East Germany, forensic psychiatrists even listed it as a possible precondition of youth criminality. To palliate the increasing number of consequences resulting from prematurity, the first weeks and months were deemed crucial and thus pediatricians highlighted the importance of perinatal care as a key solution to prevent long-term consequences.
This paper aims to investigate East-Central European countries in comparative perspective. By analyzing the expert discourse regarding premature babies' long-term development, this paper intends to assess similarities and differences in the four countries that faced a similar and multifaceted problem but addressed it from diverse perspectives and came up with distinct diagnoses and solutions. (Show less)