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Thursday, 21 June, 2001, 00:06 GMT 01:06 UK
'Problems at school' for premature babies
Premature babies could have educational problems when they reach junior school age
Premature babies could have educational problems when they reach junior school age
Up to a third of babies born slightly prematurely will go on to have problems at school, a study has suggested.

Previous studies have looked at long term emotional and behavioural consequences for those babies born very premature (at 32 weeks or less).

But the new research, published in Archives of Disease in Childhood, found children born only slightly early, between 32 and 35 weeks into the pregnancy, face "very significant risks" of having problems at school.

This group also has a higher risk of developmental problems compared to children born at full term.

The increased risk of problems should be recognised in this very large group of babies as well as the survivors of extreme prematurity

John Radcliffe Hospital researchers
Other studies have found that 10-20% of children born at full-term performed below average, compared to the third found in this study.

Doctors surveyed parents and teachers of 117 children born prematurely to parents in Oxfordshire in 1990, who made up between two to three per cent of the babies born in the county that year.

GPs were also asked for basic medical information.

Educational needs

Led by Dr Charlotte Huddy at the John Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, researchers looked at the educational and behavioural problems experienced by the children at seven years of age.

A third were found to have problems with writing, maths, or fine motor skills, such as drawing

A quarter needed support from a non-teaching assistant, said teachers.

Four per cent had special education needs, and 3% were at a special school.

A third of the group were assessed as being hyperactive by either a parent or teacher, though only 8% were said to be hyperactive by both.

The teachers were asked to assess educational abilities in speaking/listening, writing/composition, fine motor skills, mathematics, reading and physical education - ranked on a scale from one (good) to five (poor).

Children who scored either four or five in three or more skill areas, or who required additional help at school were defined as having poor school performance.

Teachers also completed a questionnaire which looked at behavioural problems.

'Clear risk'

Dr Peter Hope, a consultant neonatologist at the John Radcliffe, who co-wrote the study, told BBC News Online: "I don't want to start a panic in the parents of these babies, because a lot of them do fine."

But he said there was no point denying what they had found, and added: "Parents of some premature babies are quite relieved when they find out this might be associated with prematurity, rather than anything they might have done."

The researchers admit that knowing they were taking part in a study may have meant teachers overestimated children's problems.

But in their paper, they say: "Despite the methodological limitations of this study, it is clear that children of school age who were born at 32 - 35 weeks gestation have a very severe risk of educational difficulties.

"The increased risk of problems should be recognised in this very large group of babies as well as the survivors of extreme prematurity."

Dr Hope said more work should be carried out to find out why the link exists.

A spokeswoman for UK neonatal charity Bliss said the study added to previous work suggesting premature babies may have problems.

She added: "But as with all children, there is a proportion who will have some special needs during their early school years."

She said it had previously been shown that premature children catch up by the time they reach secondary school.

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See also:

18 Oct 00 | Health
Premature babies 'have lower IQs'
10 Aug 00 | Health
Disability risk for early babies
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