Early Birds May Be Too Sick for the Worm

Preemies tend to have poorer health as preschoolers compared to full term babies

March 1, 2012 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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(dailyRx News) Arriving early is great for meetings or work - but not for birth. Even babies born a couple weeks early are at a higher risk for developing health problems later.

A new study reveals that premature babies had poorer health outcomes when they were 3 and 5 years old compared to babies born on time (between 39 and 41 weeks), though some of these health issues may also be related to characteristics of their mothers.

"Carry your baby to full term if medically possible."

Lead author Elaine Boyle, a senior lecturer in neonatal medicine at he Department of Health Sciences at the University of Leicester, led the study looking at health outcomes of babies born between 2 and 8 weeks early.

She and colleagues looked at the data for 18,818 babies born in the U.K. between September 2000 and August 2001, grouping them into infants born between 32 and 36 weeks gestation and those born at 37 to 38 weeks gestation.

They then evaluated the health of the children at 9 months old, 3 years old and 5 years old, looking at their growth, number of hospital admissions, illness or disabilities, use of prescription drugs, parents' rating of their health and whether they had asthma.

Both babies born moderate/late preterm, between 32 and 36 gestation, and those born early term (37-38 weeks) visited the hospital more often than babies born between 39 and 41 weeks.

They found that the earlier a baby was born, the lower their general health and higher their number of hospital admissions were. Infants born at 33 to 36 weeks had a higher likelihood of wheezing problems or asthma compared to babies born on time.

Boyle's team found that being born early, in that 32 to 38 week time frame, played the largest part in whether a child had an illness or health problem when they were 3 and 5 years old.

Overall, they concluded that the long-range health of babies born early, even by just a few weeks, was worse than babies born at term, though they could not determine whether this was due to the actual premature birth or due to complications with the mother's characteristics, pregnancy or birth.

Babies born earlier than 37 weeks tended to have single mothers with lower education and employment rank. The earliest preemies' mothers were also more likely to be smokers and less likely to breastfeed for four months or more compared to the mothers of babies born after 37 weeks.

The study appeared online March 1 in BMJ. It was funded by the BUPA Foundation, and the authors declared no competing interests.

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Review Date: 
March 1, 2012
Last Updated:
March 1, 2012