Importance: Preterm birth is associated with an increased risk for long-lasting attention deficits. Early-life markers of attention abnormalities have not been established to date but could provide insights into the pathogenesis of attention abnormalities and could help identify susceptible individuals. Objective: To examine whether preterm birth is associated with visual attention impairments in early life, and if so, in which attention functions and at which developmental period during the first 2 years of life. Data Sources: PubMed and PsycINFO were searched on November 17, 2019, to identify studies involving visual attention outcomes in infants born preterm vs full term. Study Selection: Peer-reviewed studies from the past 50 years met the eligibility criteria if they directly assessed visual attention outcomes until the age of 2 years in generally healthy infants born preterm or full term. The selection process was conducted by 2 independent reviewers. Data Extraction and Synthesis: The Meta-analysis of Observational Studies in Epidemiology (MOOSE) reporting guideline was followed. Random-effects models were used to determine standardized mean differences. The risk of bias was assessed both within and between studies. Main Outcomes and Measures: Five nascent indices of visual attention were analyzed, including very basic functions - namely, the abilities to follow and fixate on visual targets - and more complex functions, such as visual processing (ie, habituation), recognition memory (ie, novelty preference), and the ability to effortfully focus attention for learning. Results: A total of 53 studies were included, with 69 effect sizes and assessing a total of 3998 infants (2047 born preterm and 1951 born full term; of the 3376 for whom sex was reported, 1693 [50.1%] were girls). Preterm birth was associated with impairments in various attention indices, including visual-following in infancy (Cohen d, -0.77; 95% CI, -1.23 to -0.31), latency to fixate (Cohen d, -0.18; 95% CI, -0.33 to -0.02), novelty preference (Cohen d, -0.20; 95% CI, -0.32 to -0.08), and focused attention (Cohen d, -0.28; 95% CI, -0.45 to -0.11). In the neonatal period, preterm birth was associated with superior visual-following (Cohen d, 0.22; 95% CI, 0.03 to 0.40), possibly owing to the additional extrauterine exposure to sensory stimulation. However, this early association waned rapidly in infancy (Cohen d, -0.77; 95% CI, -1.23 to -0.31). Conclusions and Relevance: The findings suggest that preterm birth is associated with impingements to visual attention development in early life, as manifested in basic and then complex forms of attention. Advancements in neonatal care may underlie improvements found in the current era and accentuate several early protective factors.
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