Is Premature Birth Linked to Learning and Thinking Differences?
Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH
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Question: My daughter was a preemie. Do kids who are born prematurely have a higher risk of having learning and thinking differences?
Yes, kids who are born prematurely do have a higher risk of having
learning and thinking differences. Premature birth is defined as being born before the start of the 37th week of pregnancy. (Full-term pregnancies last about 40 weeks.) The more premature a baby is, the greater the risk for that baby to have learning and thinking differences.
But this doesn’t mean that all premature babies go on to have learning and thinking differences. Many do not. It just means that there is an increased risk.
Low birth weight is another risk factor. Most babies who are born full term weigh more than 2,500 grams (about 5 pounds, 8 ounces). A baby weighing less than that at birth has an increased risk of having learning and thinking differences.
There are many other factors that can impact a premature baby’s development. Some premature babies have serious medical complications.
Genetics can also play a role. So can exposure to drugs or alcohol while in the womb. These factors can help explain why some children who are born prematurely may have learning and thinking differences, and some may not.
Many children who were born prematurely meet all their developmental milestones on time. But some kids who were born prematurely may have
developmental delays. Developmental delays can be an early sign of learning differences.
Kids with developmental delays may not meet their early milestones on time. Early milestones include things like learning to walk or talk. But sometimes delays don’t show up until a child is in preschool or older.
Be sure to adjust the timeline for your child when looking at
early milestones. For example, a child who was born three months early may talk or walk three months later than expected for a full-term baby. This wouldn’t be considered a developmental delay.
Premature birth increases the risk of having issues with reading, motor skills, math,
and other learning differences. If you have any concerns about your child and she hasn’t gotten a
comprehensive evaluation yet, now might be a good time to request one.
An evaluation can help you understand what is going well with your child’s learning and how to help with the things that are difficult for her. Keeping a close eye on your child’s development—and
partnering with your child’s school—can be a big help too.