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Even slightly early birth linked to developmental difficulties

By Dennis Thompson, HealthDay News
Infants born moderately (32-33 weeks) or late preterm (34-36 weeks) are more likely to have epilepsy or problems with brain function, motor skills, vision or hearing, according to a new study. Photo by Adobe Stock/HealthDay News
Infants born moderately (32-33 weeks) or late preterm (34-36 weeks) are more likely to have epilepsy or problems with brain function, motor skills, vision or hearing, according to a new study. Photo by Adobe Stock/HealthDay News

Babies born even slightly early have a higher long-term risk of developmental difficulties that could affect their behavior and learning ability, a new study finds.

Infants born moderately (32-33 weeks) or late preterm (34-36 weeks) are more likely to have epilepsy or problems with brain function, motor skills, vision or hearing, according to analysis of data from more than 1 million Swedish children.

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About 80% of preterm births fall into these categories, researchers noted.

"The risks should not be underestimated as these children comprise the largest proportion of children born preterm," concluded the team led by senior researcher Dr. Jenny Bolk, a consultant neonatologist with the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

"The findings may help professionals and families to better assess risk, follow-up and healthcare systems planning for children born moderately or late preterm," they added.

Previous studies have shown that babies born early have higher risks of developmental and behavioral disabilities through childhood and adolescence, researchers said.

However, few studies have investigated long-term outcomes of these children, compared with children born at full term.

For this study, researchers analyzed Swedish health data to compare children born at full term (39-40 weeks) compared to moderate- or late-preterm births.

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The data included nearly 1.3 million babies born without birth defects in Sweden between 1988 and 2012.

During an average follow-up period of 13 years, more than 75,000 children had at least one diagnosis of developmental impairment.

Babies born moderately or late preterm showed higher risks for any developmental impairment than those born at full-term, results showed.

That included a nearly five-fold increased risk of motor impairment and a nearly two-fold increased risk of epilepsy for children born moderately preterm, the study found.

The results were published Wednesday in the BMJ journal.

Researchers noted in a journal news release that since this was an observational study, they can't establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship between preterm birth and developmental problems.

For example, they can't rule out the possibility that factors like alcohol or substance use during pregnancy caused some of the developmental difficulties.

More information

The March of Dimes has more on the long-term health effects of premature birth.

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