While it’s long been known that premature babies face a much higher incidence of cerebral palsy and other medical problems, most of the infants thought to be at risk were those born before 34 weeks — the tiny babies, notably premature, whose entire bodies can fit into the palm of their father’s hands. But new research suggests that even bigger, healthier-seeming babies, when born before term, are much more likely to fall victim to the health problems of prematurity. And at a time when more and more women are giving birth early due to inductions or scheduled C-sections, that risk needs to be better communicated, according to the doctors who authored the study.
The study, which examined the circumstances of more than 140,000 babies born at 30 weeks or later, concluded that babies born from 34 to 36 weeks’ gestation, although often appearing as big and healthy as full-term newborns, were three times more likely to have cerebral palsy than babies born at 37 weeks, and up to 25% more likely to face mental retardation and other developmental delays. Because the babies in the study have not yet entered elementary school, the authors point out, it’s too early to know whether other learning-based problems will be detected.
While overall rates of prematurity are fairly steady, the number of babies born from 34-36 weeks is growing, and currently represents one in 11 births in the US. The study did not look into the reasons for the late preterm births, and some surely were medically indicated (pre-eclampsia, for
instance, pretty much demands that a baby be born early, to save both
lives).According to the study’s authors, however, some of those “late preterm” births were due to early inductions or C-sections that were not medically necessary (remember that the next time a Hollywood starlet says she’s due “sometime in the fall” and has a six-pounder).
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