According to the results of a new study performed in Scotland, babies born between 37 and 39 weeks have a 16% higher risk of having special educational needs, when compared to babies born at a full 40 weeks gestation. It’s clear that babies born very preterm are at great risk of having longterm physical and developmental problems. What we didn’t know is exactly how the risk of these issues changed over the full range of gestational ages from 24 to 40 weeks.
A new study studied at over 400,000 school-aged children, looking at their special education needs, and the gestational age at which they were born. A child was considered to have special educational needs if they had either a learning difficulty, such as dyslexia or autism, or a physical difficulty, such as poor vision or deafness that requires special educational help.
Surprisingly, the results of the studied showed an increased risk of special educational needs in early term births (those births occurring between 37 and 39 weeks gestation). In fact, because they are so common, early term births accounted for more cases of special educational needs than preterm births did.
The results of this study are interesting, because they highlight yet another risk of elective deliveries (c-sections and inductions) before a full 40 weeks of pregnancy has been completed. We worry about physical issues like lung maturity when we plan a delivery before a woman’s due date. Now we know we should give consideration to long term developmental and educational issues as well. Unfortunately, we don’t have a test for that, like an amnio to assess fetal lung maturity.
Doctors planning elective deliveries should consider the results of this study when scheduling deliveries. Mothers should also be informed about these results, especially when it comes to decisions about managing late preterm labor, or deciding to schedule an early term birth. When we have the power to change an outcome and extend a healthy pregnancy where neither the mom or baby is at risk, this study should give both moms and doctors more motivation to do so!
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- MacKay, D et al. Gestational Age at Delivery and Special Educational Need: Retrospective Cohort Study of 407,503 Schoolchildren. PLoS Med 7(6): e1000289. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000289
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