Premature babies face learning problems

  • Deborah Condon

Children who are born extremely prematurely are at a high risk of developing learning difficulties by the time they reach 11 years of age, the results of a new study indicate.

According to the findings, almost two in three children who are born before 26 weeks gestation require extra educational support in mainstream schools.

UK researchers looked at 307 extremely preterm children born in the UK and Ireland in 1995. Of these, 219 were reassessed at 11 years of age. These were then compared to 153 classmates who were born at full term.

The study found that extremely preterm children had significantly lower reading and maths scores than their classmates. Furthermore, extremely preterm boys were more likely to have more serious impairments than girls.

The study, which has been published in the journal, Archives of Disease in Childhood, is the latest report from the EPICure study group. This group has produced two previous papers examining the children at the ages of two-and-a-half and six.

Overall, just under half of the extremely premature children have serious disabilities, such as learning difficulties, cerebral palsy and impaired vision or hearing.

According to Prof Dieter Wolke of Warwick Medical School, being born extremely prematurely puts a child at a higher risk for cognitive and learning deficits.

“We found up to 44% of children had a serious impairment in core subjects such as reading and maths, and 50% had performance below the average range expected for their age. Extremely preterm children have a 13-fold increased risk of special educational needs requiring additional learning support,” Prof Wolke said.

The researchers from the University of Warwick, University College London and the University of Nottingham, used standardised tests to assess cognitive and academic abilities. Teachers’ reports of school performance were also used.

“These problems we have identified at age 11 that impact on schooling are likely to increase over time. Existing difficulties may cause further problems when the children reach secondary school and engage in more complex academic activities,” Prof Wolke warned.


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