Slightly preterm, healthy babies do OK later on

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If babies are born a couple of weeks early, but are healthy, they're not at greater risk of developmental or behavior problems later on, new research shows.

But babies born at 34 to 36 weeks' pregnancy who have problems such as difficulty breathing or eating, the study's authors say, may still be at a developmental disadvantage later in life.

Such "late-preterm" infants (a full-term pregnancy lasts from 37 to 41 weeks) are known to be at higher risk for breathing and eating difficulties. Some studies have suggested that these infants have developmental and social problems as they get older, Dr. Matthew J. Gurka of the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville and his colleagues write.

However, they add, little research has been done on long-term outcomes for late preterm infants who are otherwise healthy.

To investigate, Gurka and his team looked at about 1,300 children who had been followed from birth through age 15. Fifty-three of the children were born at 34 to 36 weeks. The study participants underwent numerous tests several times between the ages of 4 and 15 to measure their achievement, social skills, behavioral problems, and mental function.

None of the 11 tests the authors examined showed any difference in social, emotional, or mental development between the late preterm children and the children born at full term.

The researchers caution that the new findings don't mean late preterm infants with early health problems won't have problems later on; "neither do these results endorse early elective delivery of babies."

The early medical problems seen in some late preterm infants could have contributed to the "academic, development, and behavior disadvantages observed in previous studies of late preterm children," Gurka said.

"Here, we are not making any claims about all late-preterm infants, as they are definitely at higher risk of health problems, and perhaps these problems lead to later developmental disadvantages," he added. "Our study was limited to only those born healthy - hence we can only make generalizations about this subset of late preterm infants."

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