Underweight babies 'continue to struggle at school and in adult life'

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The Independent Online

Babies born prematurely with very low birth-weights continue to be at a physical, intellectual and professional disadvantage even when they become adults, new research reveals.

Babies born prematurely with very low birth-weights continue to be at a physical, intellectual and professional disadvantage even when they become adults, new research reveals.

The study is among the first to chart the long-term progress of underweight babies since the radical improvements in neo-natal hospital care during the 1960s and 1970s.

Previous research has shown that premature babies, who often require intensive care, are more likely to struggle at school and obtain poorer results. But the latest study, in The New England Journal of Medicine, says the "educational disadvantage" persists into early adulthood.

At the age of 20, people who weighed less than 3lbs (1500 grams) at birth had lower IQs, poorer academic scores and suffered more disabilities and chronic illness than peers with a normal birth-weight. Pre-term men, but not women, were less likely to go to college, suggesting they would earn less and have lower social status than their contemporaries, according to paediatricians from three universities in Ohio.

They compared the outcomes of a group of 242 young people, who were on average 11 weeks premature and weighed just 2lbs 6oz (1179 grams) at birth, with 233 people who had a normal weight at birth.

"These findings suggest that men who had very low birth-weight will lag behind their normal birth-weight peers in their ultimate educational and occupational achievement, and thus in earning ability, social status, and prestige," the report concludes.

The research showed that 74 per cent of the low birth-weight group graduated from high school compared with 83 per cent of the normal group, their average IQ was 87 compared with 92, while 30 per cent of low birth-weight men went on to college compared with 53 per cent of the other group.

The researchers also found the group with low birth-weights was less inclined towards risky behaviour, with less alcohol and cannabis use, fewer men playing truant or getting involved with the police, and fewer of the women having under-age pregnancies.

A spokesman for Bliss, a charity for more than 40,000 premature babies born in the United Kingdom each year, said medical care had improved considerably and most of the infants grew up into "perfectly healthy and happy children and adults". But a study, being carried out in Britain, had shown that "a proportion of premature babies, particularly those born extremely early, are at risk of some developmental problems".

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