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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 February 2006, 00:17 GMT
Premature babies 'can defy odds'
Premature baby
Earlier studies highlighted disadvantages such children face
Premature infants can defy the odds and achieve the same education and employment levels as those of normal birthweight, a study suggests.

A Canadian team looked at 166 children born weighing 1.1 to 2.2lbs and 145 comparable normal birthweight children until they were in their mid-20s.

The study found no significant differences in educational achievement.

Earlier research suggested premature babies face a greater risk of problems in behaviour and academic achievement.

A significant majority of young adults who were low birth weight infants have overcome earlier difficulties to become functional members of society
Dr Saroj Saigal

More than a quarter of low birthweight children have development difficulties such as cerebral palsy and blindness.

This compares to around 2% of normal birthweight children.

The team at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Canada, pointed out that despite huge improvements in premature babies' survival rates, extremely low birthweight infants were disadvantaged in many measures of cognition, academic achievement, behaviour and social adaptation.

But survivors from the early post-neonatal intensive care era are only now reaching adulthood - so there are few results in the longer term.

The researchers based their study on the hypothesis that the children of lower birthweight would have lower levels of educational achievement, employment and would be less independent.


However, the Journal of the American Medical Association study found that 82% of low birthweight children graduated from high school, compared to 87% of normal birthweight.

And about a third of the children, all of whom were born in 1977-1982, in each group went into post-secondary education.

There were also no significant differences between the groups in terms of independent living, marriage or cohabitation, the researchers said.

However in a sub-analysis, a larger proportion of extremely low birthweight participants (26%) were not employed due to chronic illness or permanent disability compared to normal birthweight subjects (15%).

Longer term

But these differences did not persist when participants with disabilities - including some of normal birthweight - were excluded, the team said.

Lead researcher Dr Saroj Saigal, a neonatology expert at the McMaster Children's Hospital in Hamilton, said: "Against our expectations and many odds, a significant majority of young adults who were low birthweight infants have overcome earlier difficulties to become functional members of society.

"It isn't clear what factors contributed to the positive outcome beyond adolescence, as all through childhood the low birthweight cohort was significantly compromised in comparison with their peers."

She said that the results must be viewed in the context of Canada's universal healthcare and social welfare system .

'Cotton wool'

The results would not have been so positive in the USA or a developing country, she added.

Dr Saigal also said her research showed the children had learned to adapt and survive despite their disadvantages.

Gillian Fletcher, former president of the National Childbirth Trust and an antenatal teacher, said the research was far more positive than previous studies.

"It was quite reassuring the fact that even some of the most disabled children had attained as much educational achievement as adults."

It was important, she said, that parents accessed the help and support they were entitled to.

She added that it was important that parents of very premature babies did not "wrap their children up in cotton wool" and inadvertently damage their chances of living independently.

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