Babies born just a few weeks early struggle more in English and Maths at school
Children born at 37 weeks had a 33 per cent increased chance of having severe
reading difficulties by the age of eight compared with those born at 41-weeks

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UPDATED:

15:00 GMT, 2 July 2012

Babies who are born just a few weeks early could go on to struggle at school, research suggests.

Scientists found a little more time in the womb may result in greater brain development and better scores on academic tests.

Premature babies are newborns born before 37 weeks and are known to face increased chances for health and developmental problems.

Full-term is generally considered to be between 37 weeks and 41 weeks and until now researchers assumed it made little difference when babies emerged during this time.

Compared with 41-weekers, children born at 37 weeks faced a 33 per cent increased chance of having severe reading difficulty when they were eight years old

Compared with 41-weekers, children born at 37 weeks faced a 33 per cent increased chance of having severe reading difficulty when they were eight years old

However, a new study has found that more children born at 37 or 38 weeks performed poorly in maths test when they were eight-years-old compared to youngsters born a week or two later.

The researchers and other experts said the results suggest that the definition of prematurity should be reconsidered.

The findings also raise questions about hastening childbirth by scheduling cesarean deliveries for convenience – because women are tired of being pregnant or doctors are busy – rather than for medical reasons, the researchers say.

Women should 'at least proceed with caution before electing to have an earlier term birth,' said lead author Dr Kimberly Noble from Columbia University Medical Center.

The study involved 128,000 New York City public school children and included a sizable number of youngsters from disadvantaged families. But the authors said similar results likely would be found in other children, too.

Of the third grade children born at 37 weeks, 2.3 per cent had severely poor reading skills and 1.1 per cent had at least moderate problems in math. That compares to 1.8 per cent and 0.9 per cent for the children born at 41 weeks.

Children born at 38 weeks faced only slightly lower risks than those born at 37 weeks.

Compared with 41-weekers, children born at 37 weeks faced a 33 per cent increased chance of having severe reading difficulty in third grade, and a 19 per cent greater chance of having moderate problems in math.

'These outcomes are critical and predict future academic achievement,' said Naomi Breslau, a Michigan State University professor and sociologist.

Her own research has linked lower IQs in 6-year-olds born weighing the same as the average birth weights at 37 and 38 weeks' gestation, compared with those born heavier.

The study was published online Monday in Pediatrics.

The research 'will cause quite a stir,' said Dr Judy Aschner, a pediatrics professor and neonatology director at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

'There are still a lot of babies who are being delivered more or less electively at 37 and 38 weeks, with people thinking, “This is no big deal – these babies are full-term.” I think this is a big deal,' Dr Aschner said.

Dr Aschner, who was not involved in the study, said no one is recommending trying to delay childbirth for women who go into labor at 37 weeks or 38 weeks.

'I don't want to panic moms whose babies come at 37 weeks,' she said.

'But those elective early deliveries really need to stop.'

Some hospitals including Vanderbilt require obstetricians planning elective C-sections to complete a checklist and if appropriate boxes aren't checked, the operation can't be performed, Aschner said.

In the study, 15 per cent of children were born in C-section operations but there was no information on how many of these were elective or medically necessary procedures.

C-sections can cause birth complications that also increase chances for developmental delays. But the researchers took that into account, along with other risk factors including low birth weight, lack of prenatal care, smoking during pregnancy and neighborhood poverty – all of which could contribute to academic difficulties. And they still found that birth at 37 weeks and 38 weeks was an additional risk.