About 12% of babies born in the United States each year are born prematurely. Medical technology has improved the survival rate of even the tiniest newborns. Babies born weighing less than 1,000 grams are described as extremely low birthweight (ELBW), and are at particularly high risk for medical complications and developmental challenges. Research has shown that ELBW babies continue to have cognitive, academic, behavioral, and social difficulties into adolescence.

In an article published in the February 8, 2006 Journal of the American Medical Association , researchers who have been following a set of ELBW babies born in the late 1970s and early 1980s compared how well they were transitioning into adulthood compared to their peers who were born at a normal birthweight (NBW). They found that by young adulthood, there were no significant differences between the NBW and ELBW individuals with regard to education, employment, independent living, and marital status.

About the Study

The researchers recruited 166 long-term ELBW survivors (born weighing between 501 and 1,000 grams) and 145 normal birthweight individuals, all of whom were born between 1977 and 1982 within a geographically defined area in Canada. The young adults in both groups participated in face-to-face interviews when they were in their early twenties.

At an average age of 23 years, there were no significant differences between the ELBW and NBW groups in terms of level of education achieved, employment status, proportion of individuals living independently, and proportion of individuals who were married. There were also no significant differences between the groups with regard to the age at which these milestones were achieved. This was true in spite of the fact that ELBW individuals were significantly more likely to have neurosensory impairments (such as cerebral palsy , blindness, and deafness) compared to NBW individuals.

The majority of young adults in this study were white, middle-class or upper middle-class, and grew up in two-parent families. As a result, it is not clear whether the study results would apply to ELBW babies raised under different circumstances.

How Does This Affect You?

This study found that despite documented academic, cognitive, behavioral, and social challenges from childhood through adolescence, ELBW babies appear to be on par with their normal birth-weight counterparts when it comes to all the major milestones of young adulthood.

Advances in medical technology are allowing ever smaller and younger babies to survive. These days, babies born as young as 24 weeks and weighing less than 600 grams have a chance to survive. Those that do, however, are likely to face daunting medical challenges, and many will live with chronic medical conditions.

ELBW babies are also at high risk for cognitive and developmental delays, and parents and pediatricians of ELBW babies should look for signs that their children are not achieving their developmental milestones. Most states have early intervention programs that help pre-school-aged children with speech and motor delays, sensory issues, and other developmental problems. The earlier a delay is identified and addressed, the better equipped a child will be to overcome the challenges that may lie ahead.