Children born prematurely able to perform equally as well at school as their peers, research shows

While the most prematurely babies scored low in tests, the difference was 'negligible' by the time children were of middle-school age

Fears premature babies might lag behind their peers in terms of academia are largely unfounded, scientists said
Fears premature babies might lag behind their peers in terms of academia are largely unfounded, scientists said

Premature babies can perform just as well at school as children who were carried to full term, an extensive new study has found.

Tracking the progression of more than 1.3 million US children, researchers said common fears that premature babies might lag behind in their learning were largely unfounded.

Even those born at the earliest possible dates were not deemed to be at a significant disadvantage compared with their full-term peers.

Two in three babies born as early as 23 or 24 weeks into pregnancy were ready for kindergarten on time – around the age of five, the same time British children begin reception class.

Almost 2 per cent of these children were noted to be academically “gifted”, compared with 9.5 per cent of Florida-born public school students overall.

While extremely premature babies often scored low on standardised tests, infants born 25 weeks or later only scored slightly lower than children who had been born at full-term, scientists found.

As the length of pregnancy increased after 28 weeks, the differences in test scores by the time children were aged between 11 and 14 were negligible, they concluded.

The longitudinal study - published by the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University and Northwestern Medicine in the JAMA Pedriatics journal - analysed babies born in Florida from 1992-2002, with gestational ages of 23-41 weeks.

Scientists matched the babies’ health records with their school records to examine the link between being born early and academic performance.

“While some people might be troubled that very premature infants tend to score well below their full-term peers on standardized tests, I believe that the glass is more than half-full,” said senior author David Figlio, director of the Institute for Policy Research.

“Most infants born at 23 to 24 weeks still demonstrate a high degree of cognitive functioning at the start of kindergarten and throughout school.”

Previous studies into prematurely-born boys and girls in the UK have suggested they were more likely to fail at reading, writing and maths tasks, as well as having an increased likelihood of developing special education needs such as dyslexia.

Babies born with premature birth-weights were also more likely to face unemployment in later life, a Canadian study found.

But the Northwestern University paper is said to be the most comprehensive study of its kind to date.

Unlike some studies into premature birth, the data did not account for serious medical issues relating to birth, or provide information as to why these children performed well in school – for instance whether they received extra support from family or schools.

Nevertheless, most babies born prematurely performed well on standardised tests through middle school, said Craig Garfield, an associate professor of paediatrics at the university.

“What’s special about this study is it speaks to the importance of administrative data sets and the ability to combine different data sets in ways that allow us to ask questions and get answers about how our children are doing in the long-run,” he said.

“Our future work in this area will focus on what parents and service providers can do to help future premature children to achieve their full potential.”

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