Preemies' thinking skills may catch up by adolescence

August 12, 2014 by Barbara Bronson Gray, Healthday Reporter
Preemies' thinking skills may catch up by adolescence
Study hints at the importance of nutrition and a stimulating home environment.

(HealthDay)—A new Australian study offers some potentially reassuring news to parents of preemies who are worried about their child's intellectual development: By adolescence, many of these infants appear to catch up to classmates who weren't born early.

But some U.S. experts said the findings may be overly optimistic because only the healthiest premature babies were studied.

Premature infants are born more than three weeks before their due date, but brain volume typically doubles in those final weeks before birth, explained Dr. Deborah Campbell, chief of neonatology at Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York City. "There is tremendous growth and activity in that last month," she said.

Without that time in the womb for the brain to develop normally, preemies can experience a wide range of issues, including thinking and memory problems. "Fifty percent of preemies will have learning problems," said Campbell.

The Australian researchers found the strongest predictors of thinking ability in teenagers who were born prematurely seemed to be a combination of factors that occurred both before and after birth, most particularly birth weight, height and socioeconomic level at the time of birth.

Of those factors, early nutrition and enrichment through physical and intellectual stimulation in the home environment are likely to have key roles, the study authors concluded. The research was published recently in The Journal of Pediatrics.

For the study, Luke Schneider and colleagues at the University of Adelaide looked at 145 adolescents who were born prematurely: 78 boys and 67 girls. Gestational age—which is normally 40 to 42 weeks—ranged from 25 to 41 weeks. None of the participants had abnormal brain ultrasounds at birth, any genetic or chromosomal disorder or known syndrome, or any physical or intellectual disability that would interfere with their ability to follow directions.

Data related to gestational age at birth, each teenager's and current height and weight, birth head circumference and socioeconomic level (based on their address at birth and parents' occupation, employment and income) were also collected. The thinking abilities of the teenagers were then assessed using standard tests.

The researchers noted that the only who were included in the study were those with good fetal growth at the time of their birth. As a result, they said that the sample may not be representative of all , only the most neurologically normal.

One expert agreed that the research may not reflect the full spectrum of preemies.

"This is an abnormally rosy picture of preterm ," said Dr. Catherine Herway, an assistant director of maternal-fetal medicine at Staten Island University Hospital, in New York City.

Herway added that she was concerned that research suggesting that problems of prematurity may be resolved by adolescence may fuel a current trend where women are asking that their babies be delivered a couple of weeks before their due date.

"The number one reason is that women are tired of being pregnant, don't like their swollen feet or the back pain, and I don't blame them. But it's a choice of putting up with the discomfort for the lifelong health of your child," Herway said.

Neither Campbell nor Herway were involved in the study.

Campbell encouraged parents of preemies to monitor their children's development and make sure they are meeting the appropriate milestones. "It's not about money," she said. "Anyone can create different developmental stimuli, can talk to their children and introduce them to the world."

Yet, even with careful parental support, prematurity is a lifelong health risk, said Campbell. Adults who were preemies may have a higher risk of upper respiratory issues and metabolic syndrome, a combination of physiological abnormalities that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, she explained.

Adults who were can also experience thinking challenges. On average, intellectual potential will be slightly diminished, Campbell explained. "If your genetic potential was supposed to be an IQ of 120, it would be about 110, depending on how little you were when you were born and how sick you were," she said.

Herway said more studies are needed to better understand the long-term outcomes of prematurity.

"Sometimes we see kids born at 26 weeks and they're totally normal," Herway said. "It's multi-factorial and we really don't understand it."

Explore further: Preterm children's brains can catch up years later

More information: Learn more about prematurity from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Related Stories

Preterm children's brains can catch up years later

July 29, 2014
There's some good news for parents of preterm babies – latest research from the University of Adelaide shows that by the time they become teenagers, the brains of many preterm children can perform almost as well as those ...

Preemies may have higher risk of blood clots, even as adults

July 28, 2014
(HealthDay)—Babies born prematurely appear to have a slightly increased risk of potentially fatal blood clots that they will carry into adulthood, Swedish researchers report.

Stressed parents may affect preemie behavior later

March 16, 2012
(HealthDay) -- When parents of very small premature infants are stressed or depressed, their children are more likely to develop behavioral problems by age 3, according to new research.

Preemies' gut bacteria may depend more on gestational age than environment

August 11, 2014
Scientists believe babies are born with digestive systems containing few or no bacteria. Their guts then quickly become colonized by microbes—good and bad—as they nurse or take bottles, receive medication and even as ...

MRI shows brain abnormalities in late preterm infants

June 10, 2014
Babies born 32 to 36 weeks into gestation may have smaller brains and other brain abnormalities that could lead to long-term developmental problems, according to a new study published online in the journal Radiology.

Obesity before pregnancy linked to earliest preterm births, study finds

June 25, 2014
Women who are obese before they become pregnant face an increased risk of delivering a very premature baby, according to a new study of nearly 1 million California births.

Recommended for you

At the cellular level, a child's loss of a father is associated with increased stress

July 18, 2017
The absence of a father—due to incarceration, death, separation or divorce—has adverse physical and behavioral consequences for a growing child. But little is known about the biological processes that underlie this link ...

New comparison chart sheds light on babies' tears

July 10, 2017
A chart that enables parents and clinicians to calculate if a baby is crying more than it should in the first three months of its life has been created by a Kingston University London researcher, following a study of colic ...

Blood of SIDS infants contains high levels of serotonin

July 3, 2017
Blood samples from infants who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) had high levels of serotonin, a chemical that carries signals along and between nerves, according to a study funded in part by the National Institutes ...

Is your child's 'penicillin allergy' real?

July 3, 2017
(HealthDay)—Many children suspected of being allergic to the inexpensive, first-line antibiotic penicillin actually aren't, new research indicates.

Probiotic supplements failed to prevent babies' infections

July 3, 2017
(HealthDay)—Probiotic supplements may not protect babies from catching colds or stomach bugs in day care, a new clinical trial suggests.

Starting school young can put child wellbeing at risk

June 22, 2017
New research has shown that the youngest pupils in each school year group could be at risk of worse mental health than their older classmates.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.