Babies born just two weeks early at higher risk of health problems
Babies born even just a few weeks early are more likely to suffer from poor health, including asthma, researchers have discovered.
Doctors have traditionally regarded the health prospects of babies born two to three weeks premature as similar to those who were born at full-term.
But the latest findings demonstrate that such babies, born at 37 to 38 weeks – and of whom there are about 125,000 a year in England alone – are in fact at higher risk of health problems than those born later.
Worry: Research has found that the earlier a baby is born, the greater chance of health issues throughout its life (stock image)
In an extensive study of 14,000 British children, researchers compared data for moderate/late pre-term babies born at 32 to 36 weeks and for those regarded as early term, 37 to 38 weeks.
The babies were assessed when they were aged nine months and again when they were aged three and five and the results were reported in the British Medical Journal.
They confirmed that the earlier a baby was born, the more likely it was to suffer long-standing illnesses. They were also admitted more frequently to hospital in the first nine months of life, most commonly for respiratory and gastrointestinal disorders,
But the experts also discovered that even babies born at 37 to 38 weeks had poorer health than those born later.
For example, they were 10 per cent more likely to suffer from a long-standing illness, or asthma and wheezing, than those born at 39 to 41 weeks. They were also 40 per cent more likely to have been prescribed an asthma inhaler at the age of five than those born at 39 to 41 weeks.
Be careful: Pregnant women are being urged to lead a healthy lifestyle to improve the chances of a healthy baby
The research team, including experts from the University of Leicester and the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford, said: ‘Our results challenge perceptions about outcomes for babies born during part of the period of gestation that has traditionally been regarded as term (37 to 38 weeks).’
The experts pointed out that research and resources were frequently directed towards very premature babies, who have the highest risk of death and health problems.
But they argue that their numbers are relatively small – about 8,000 are born each year in England – and are far outnumbered by more mature pre-term babies, born at 32 to 36 weeks.
Professor Andy Shennan, consultant obstetrician for pregnancy research charity, Tommy’s said: ‘It is increasingly appreciated that babies born even a few weeks early can have long term health and behavioural issues.
‘Most pre-term related problems actually come from these later pre-term births, as although less serious, they are far more common than very early births.’
Leanne Metcalf, assistant director of research at Asthma UK, said ‘This is not the first piece of research to indicate that every week spent in the womb is important for a baby in order to reduce its risk of developing asthma in childhood.
‘The advantage of this study, however, is its scale in terms of the number of children whose asthma development compared to their gestational age has been measured, and the fact that it has looked at babies who are born just a few weeks prematurely.’
She added that there are a number of things pregnant women can do to reduce the risk of giving birth prematurely, including maintaining a healthy weight, staying active and avoiding stress, smoking and infections.