Forty per cent of very premature babies have significant learning disabilities, a BBC Panorama report is set to reveal.
The findings are based on an unpublished study of 1,200 babies who were born alive less than 26 weeks into a pregnancy.
Only 341 of the babies survived to go home, and 40% of them exhibited learning difficulties by the time they were six years old.
The authors of the report are divided over whether such results mean doctors should continue to help very premature babies survive.
Send us your reaction to the report.
Panorama's Miracle baby grows up was broadcast on BBC One on Wednesday, 22 September 2004.
This debate is now closed. Thank you for your comments.
The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we have received so far:
I was born 3 months early in 1966 and spent three months in an incubator. I am over 6ft tall and weigh approx 18st, so I have caught up and possibly surpassed other who were born normally. I am currently a member of Mensa and also run a succesful business in the property sector. I write music, am fluent in three languages and undertake painting commissions - so I really do not think my mental state has been affected from being born early. Statistics are just numbers and should be used as such. Give every premature baby the best it can be given and I am sure they will turn into a decent person when older.
I have read the comments and it is admirable of the many who think it is wrong to allow nature to take its course - but many of them have turned out to be graduates, they were the lucky ones. My son was not. He was born in 1985 at 25 weeks, 1pound 15oz. He has had everything which could go wrong has gone wrong. My heart bleeds every minute of every day for my darling lad. You cannot generalise with these situations. The pain and heartache is sometimes unbearable.
Kathy, Woking, Surrey
I personally think that all mums must have a full support. I was born by caesarean section and have Down syndrome as a condition. I support my teacher, whose name is Clare and is going to have a baby in February 2005.
Richard Lord, England
Twenty five years ago, my eldest son was born at 34 weeks, needed special care and had developmental problems for most of his early years. It was hard work but he is now an able bodied, high achieving man. The hospital told me it was 'one of those things' and did nothing to find out why I had a premature labour. So I went to a teaching hospital where they have an ethos of trying to keep the unborn baby in the womb for as long as possible.
Twenty one years ago, I went into labour with my second son at 28 weeks but due to the hospital's skills, I finally had him at 38 weeks - thus eliminating the need for special care and a lot of heartache. At the time I had the opinion that doctors prefer the romance of 'saving a pre-term baby' to the very unglamorous slog of helping the mother keep a baby till full term. Twenty five years later, my opinion has not changed and this programme is testament to the lack of research into premature labour.
I was born 2 months premature in 1969 (a miracle at that time) and spent several months in an incubator with a small percentage chance of surviving. Because of this I was tested throughout my childhood. 34 years later I am a university graduate, have a successful career and IQ that puts me in top.5% of the population, thankfully it turned out ok for me. There is no way of knowing what problems a premature baby might have in later life, but as medical technology improves the risks reduce. Let's worry less about the risks and more about reducing and preventing them.
Every life is important so we should done all to save this life.
I don't understand society's stance on disability. We spend a fortune making businesses and leisure facilities accessible to those with disabilities, but contemplate letting premature babies die because they might have learning difficulties at an older age. If all individuals can make a meaningful contribution to society, we must surely apply the same criteria to the new-born (and even, the un-born) babies as we do to adults.
Heather, Stockport, UK
All these comments seem to be saying 'save any baby regardless of cost' and making the usual references to Nazis if any control is proposed. We have got to the stage where saving these very premature babies is costing a huge amount of money and is sometimes of doubtful value even to them. Limits need to be established.
Christian Tiburtius, Reading, UK
I was born prematurely and have had cerebral palsy since then. That was over 50 years ago. At that time, Mum and Dad were told 'put him in a home and try again'. Luckily, they didn't. I went on to get a degree, work and have a great life. Are we really going back to Nazism? Support is what we need, not death.
Andy Berry, Gloucester
I was born premature and only weighing just over a pound. This was 30 years ago and odds of survival were a great deal lower than they are today. Of course doctors should do everything they can. The doctors and even my parents could have given up with me, but they didn't. I have 2 degrees and haven't had any problems with my education. I might be on the small side but I make up with a huge personality!!
I was born in 1985 at only 24 weeks, 2 days and very grateful to the people who saved me. I am not surprised at the figures, and I hope that the doctors continue to help keep premature babies alive and give them the same chance that I was given.
Richard Israel, Bristol, UK
I am appalled that some authors of this report feel doctors should not continue to help very premature babies survive. Many non-premature babies have learning difficulties too. Would some of the authors suggest that those children should not have survived?
Margaret, London UK
My 7 year old nephew was born at just under 26 weeks weighing 1lb 10oz. Although he is very small for his age he is a normal, healthy child. His parents would have loved him regardless of any learning difficulties.
As someone who was born at six months in 1977, I would like to emphasise that people born prematurely can survive and go on to lead happy lives. As an adult now I can fully appreciate the worry and anxiety both my parents suffered. I would like to send some form of reassurance to parents who might today be visiting a child they can hold in the palm of their hand.
Christine Morrow, Belfast, N. Ireland
The question is down to life, at any cost. My own personal experience of growing up with a severely disabled brother has meant I would never choose to knowingly have a child that would have such a poor quality of life. Those who do choose to keep these poor children alive are simply being selfish, they are acting in their own misguided interests at the end of the day and not those of their child or any siblings it may have.
Jennifer, Netherlands, ex UK
Our society has not yet learned how to plan for the children who are alive but severely disabled. For parents, it is not the disability, but the fighting for support, education and opportunities which exhausts us!
Marion, Harwich, Essex
Our daughter was born at 31 weeks and we will always be indebted to the medical personnel who ensured that she was perfectly healthy. The decision on how much effort should go to trying to save a very, very early baby can only be made by the parents of that child. They should have the full advice and support of the medics in making their choice, but only they will have to live with the full consequences of their decision whatever they chose to do.
Lisa T, Cambridge, UK
Yes. I was born in 1953 full-term but weighing just 2lbs, and was in hospital for 3 months. My parents, brother and sister are of normal height I am small (4ft 7ins) and was a 'late developer' but am perfectly fit and able. Had ultrasound been available then, I would probably not be here as they might have thought me 'non-viable'. Let them live--every life is precious.
S Forsyth, Edinburgh, Lothian
My daughter was premature and weighed under 4lbs, but in the last 18mths her progress is amazing, she is still very small for her age, she wears 9-12mths clothes even though she will be 2 in October, but she is very clever and is ahead of other two year olds that I know, so every baby is different, so don't worry too much about your babies development, if they are premature.
Burnettj, Kilmarnock, Scotland
I was a premature baby and I have learning difficulties. This does not mean that you can not go on to have a good quality of life. I have just completed a Masters degree and am due to start a new job in my chosen profession. I have a good home, a lovely partner and have travelled loads. Give all our children the best chance we can.
Yes the doctors should continue to help. In a world where we protect and safeguard animals, I think the human life deserves fairer approach regardless of whether the baby develops learning disability or not, still is a human. The baby might mean a lot more to the parents. These babies should be given fair chance to survive as the others.
Gowri, London, UK
I'm studying for a PhD at Oxford. Before this I studied natural sciences at Cambridge where I got a first, despite having attended a poor north-east comprehensive school. But I was a premature baby and only survived due to an incubator donated by the charity BLISS (baby life support systems). So obviously I am retarded then and should have been left to die?
My daughter was three months premature and is now seven years old. She is very bright and doesn't have any learning difficulties. Why shouldn't a child born early have the same rights to survive as a child born at term? She was born early to save both of us from dying of eclampsia and apart from being small, she had no health problems. I think the very suggestion of letting a baby die simply because they are small is disgusting.
Natalie, Swindon, UK
These babies should be given every chance to survive. As a mum I would have wanted doctors to have assisted my baby had he been born very early. The joy of having a child would outweigh any learning problems.
Jacqui, Newcastle upon Tyne
Are we then saying that doctors only help you to survive if you are 'perfect' or likely to have no future problems? I'm concerned that the authors should have qualms over giving any baby a fighting chance of a life.
Kevin, Coventry, UK
I don't think doctors have much choice. Regardless of peoples' views on whether doctors should continue to help premature babies survive, the ethos of their profession is to preserve life if possible. Don't forget that, out of the 1,200 babies studies, 205 are now healthy, normal babies. If the doctors hadn't helped, these babies would now be dead. Is there any other situation where a 17% chance of saving a patient to live a normal life would be classed as pointless odds? How could a doctor explain that to distraught parents?
Simon Robinson, London, UK
How far? All the way - a life is a life, and if you start with "Well, he'll be handicapped so better let him die," you're well on the road to "Well, he'll grow up stupid, knock him on the head". So every effort should be made, with every baby.
Samantha David, France
I think it largely depends on the mother's decision. The mother's commitment can make a difference to the quality of life of the new born child. It may be very distressing to the mother, but the doctor should get the decision from the mother.
Ulysses Lee, Hong Kong
I think it is easier to comment if you yourself have not experienced a premature birth either in your family or if indeed your own child. I would like if doctors went to the full extent to save a child whether they do or do not have a high risk of a mental disease, a child is a child and you need to give them all a chance. Whatever happens a child will be loved and none should be dismissed the right to live. I am sure many of you out there were a premature child and the thought that doctors might have given up on you and you would not be here today is a disheartening thought.
As a paediatric nurse I once worked in a neonatal intensive care unit in England and it is undoubtedly true that the majority of these very early babies will not survive. Looking at the figures I'd have to say they are remarkably good. Premature babies are prone to spontaneous cerebral bleeds and breathing difficulties/immature lungs are also likely to contribute to brain damage. That being the case if over half - 60% - survive with mild or no damage then it has to be worth trying to save them all.
On the other hand medical/nursing staff need to be very frank with parents as to the likely outcome of harmful crises (bleeds etc) arising during treatment and their long term effects so that they can make the best choice possible in their circumstances. Some will always want to go ahead with treatment even if their child may be severely damaged - especially if they have lost many pregnancies and that baby represents a last chance. Others will feel that caring for a badly damaged child for the rest of it's life will not be for them. Both choices should be respected - and in my experience they usually were
Jane, UK living in USA
If it were me, I would want every step taken to try and save my child. Perhaps an informed decision should be made by the parents, with medical advice regarding risks, given by doctors. According to the study, 205 babies survived with no learning disabilities! I would presume that with the advances of modern medicine these numbers may grow, now that must give parents some hope.
Dawn Gibson, Strathmore AB, Canada
My six-year-old son was born at 27 weeks, weighing just 1lb 4oz (575g). The NHS staff in London worked like Trojans for 4 months - keeping him alive. Worth it? My son is a highly intelligent and sociable little boy - who's bought much joy to a lot of people. It's been hard work - too many hours spent pacing hospital wards. But we can see the light at the end of the tunnel - and it's wonderful that he is able to share his life with us.
Tracy Steinberg, Brit in USA
I was born 3 months early weighing 3.5lbs and was released from the hospital 3 months later. We (my twin and I) were slow in regular development but we made it. I'm 22 and under 5 ft tall but I'm happy I'm here. I think doctors should continue to help tiny babies, without the great doctors where I was born, I wouldn't even be here. I'm happy being small - it's a daily reminder that I'm one lucky person and somebody in that hospital saved my mother's life and the lives of my sister and myself. Kudos to all the staff who helped that day. I may be small but I'm mighty!
Rachel, Ajax, ON Canada
As a doctor in training, I could never watch a baby die without trying to help it unless it was crystal clear that baby had problems incompatible with life. No one can possibly suggest not helping a baby on the off chance it may have learning difficulties - even if it was certain it would have such difficulties who are we to judge who we should help and who we should not? These babies are people, not statistics or things that can be helped or left on the whim of a doctor! Babies can't be treated as only worth saving if they "fit in" to our society - each is unique and should be given every chance to experience life.
Julie, London, UK
Both our two boys (Kyle and James) were born at 26 weeks gestation. Kyle has Cerebral Palsy James is severe to profoundly deaf. Despite these problems we love them both dearly. After all at the end of the day, they are both lucky to be alive.
Jonathan and Tina Vickers, Penistone UK
Does having learning disabilities lessen the value of a human life? You're on very dangerous grounds here, bordering on Nazi theology. If we devalue a human life born before x many weeks of age, then we might as well stop helping those with Down's syndrome survive, or trisomy 18, or other less severe problems, and that leads to weeding out those with green eyes or red hair because society norms are say those attributes may not be as desirable. That is Nazi Germany all over again. If you've ever had and loved a premature baby, you wouldn't even pose the question in the first place.
Of course the babies should be saved! 60% of them don't develop learning disabilities, and one can never know that a baby will die for sure -there is always a chance for life, and each of these babies should be given that chance.
Elizabeth, Shreveport, Louisiana, USA
If you discount the 859 deaths (no mean feat) then 60% of very premature surviving babies have a normal life. Is that what the authors discovered? If someone said your baby had a 60% chance of a normal life -if they survived- you would probably take it. The implication seems to be that the higher the percentage of babies that go on to develop learning difficulties, the less likelihood of a parent opting for life (if given the choice). This question needs answering before spending money on research like this e.g. market research: under what circumstances would a parent choose non-treatment of their baby? I am happy that the authors are divided over this because I don't think there is one solution to this question. When the response from the authors become united, I will be more interested in the debate.
Harry, Shaw, England