Introducing love and affection into the lives of orphanage children has an “astonishing” affect on their growth, scientists heard today.
Research has shown that children abandoned at birth and placed in orphan homes not only suffer emotional and mental problems but also fail to grow at the normal rate.
But a study of children in Romania has proved that fostering can work a miracle on the children.
Once in the hands of loving foster parents, they rapidly become taller and heavier until they catch up with other children. At the same time, they grow in intelligence and start to overcome their emotional problems.
The American study, started five years ago, compared the progress of about 70 Romanian children growing up in Bucharest orphanages and a similar number given foster homes.
In almost every area of development, the children who were raised in institutions, mostly from birth, were found to have suffered impairment.
The findings, presented today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in St Louis, Missouri, bore out previous research showing that young children lose roughly one month of growth for every three months they are in an orphanage.
Three-year-old children from orphanages are only the size of two-year-olds. By the time they reach their teenage years, they are the size of children half their age.
But the scientists were amazed by the physical transformation seen in children handed over to specially-trained foster parents at between six months and 26 months of age.
One of the researchers, Dr Dana Johnson from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said: “When they arrive they have a tremendous amount of catch-up growth. The kids who went into foster care grew beautifully. By a year and a half they had reached normal size.
“We’ve seen astonishing growth in these kids over a short period of time.”
Why being in an orphanage should affect a child’s growth is not entirely clear. Scientists know that such children produce less growth hormone than other children, but the physical processes involved are not understood. It appears to be an example of the way emotional factors can have physical effects, especially early in life.
The scientists conducting the Romanian study ruled out poor diet as an explanation. Despite being in institutions, the orphanage children were properly fed.
Children staying in the orphanages were also seriously stunted in relation to intelligence, the AAAS meeting was told. Their IQ scores were said to be close to “retarded” levels. But again, they appeared to catch up after being placed in foster care.
The same pattern was seen for emotional disturbances such as depression and anxiety. Children suffered more of these problems while in orphanages, but improved greatly after spending between 42 and 54 months with foster parents.
Behavioural problems, such as aggression and hyperactivity, were also heightened in orphanages, but in this case the damage was not so easily fixed. These difficulties tended to remain with the fostered children, possibly because they reflected very early impact on brain circuits that underlie basic behaviours.
Nevertheless, the scientists said it was possible that given a long enough recovery period, improvements might be seen in this area too.
Foster parents were recruited in a similar way to those in the United States, said the researchers. They were paid regular visits by social workers, and helped to develop emotional attachments with the children.
In the orphanages, the ratio of staff to children was one to 12 or 15. Staff also worked rotating shifts, so care was impersonal and provided little “psychological investment”.
Dr Johnson said a recent World Health Organisation report showed that thousands of children were in orphanages around the world, not just in eastern Europe. The country with the highest proportion of children under three in institutions was Belgium.
He said there were important lessons to be learned from the findings.
“The simple one is never institutionalise a child,” he said. “The only environment that promotes normal development of a child is a normal family environment. But there are interventions that can make a more family-like environment. If children can’t be put into foster care then the institution must be as family-like as possible.”
Recent research suggests that, in young children at least, the human brain is much more “plastic” and able to change than was previously thought. At what stage the plasticity of the brain ceases is an unanswered fundamental question.
Dr Charles Nelson, from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, another of the investigators, said: “It’s possible that plasticity will cease in some domains earlier than in others. Or is the door swinging closed, but never closes completely? Research from animals indicates that it never quite closes.”
All of the institutionalised children involved in the study were gradually being transferred to foster homes, said the scientists. Currently, only 17 were still in orphanages.