A new study released in the February 14, 2011 edition of journal Pediatrics indicated that "late preterm" infants face more developmental delays than their full-term peers and those delays will likely affect their school performance.
“Late preterm” refers to infants born between 34 weeks and 37 weeks gestation—just six to three weeks shy of the full 40-week recommended pregnancy. Researchers say those three to six weeks can significantly slow a child’s physical and mental development—specifically the final development of the lungs and brain.
Researchers in Boston studied records from 6,300 term and 1,200 late preterm infants from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort. Researchers used equations to estimate the odds of mental or physical delays among the preterm set at the age of 2.
Three areas were examined—an infants’ mental, motor and physical skills.
In mental skills, late preterm babies were 52 percent more likely than term infants to suffer severe delays and 43 percent more likely to experience milder limitations. In motor skills, the preterm toddlers faced 56 percent increased odds of severe delays and a 58 percent increased risk of milder ones.
To shed some perspective on how big an impact three to six weeks has, consider this: the brain of a baby at 34 weeks' gestation weighs 35 percent less than it would at term, the study noted.
The study stated that nearly 13 percent of the nation's 4.2 million annual births are preterm births—those in which babies are delivered before 37 weeks' gestation. Furthermore, the study shows that late preterm births have risen 25 percent since 1990, from about 7 percent to 9 percent of all births.
Additionally, more women are opting to have early deliveries than ever before. Some estimates show up to 40 percent of U.S. births being early elective deliveries, that is, an early delivery without a valid medical reason according to the Leapfrog Group, a non-profit organization that compares hospitals on national standards of safety and quality.