Gestational Age Correlates with Later Learning DifficultiesResearch published this week in PLoS Medicine shows that there is an association between newborns’ gestational age at delivery and the risk of special educational needs in later life. This finding has important implications for the timing of elective Caesarean deliveries.

Children with special educational needs may have either a learning difficulty (e.g., dyslexia or autism) or a physical difficulty (e.g., deafness or poor vision) that requires special educational help. Although it is already well-known that a baby born prematurely (e.g., 24 weeks of gestation) is more likely to have special educational needs later in life than one born at full term (40 weeks of gestation), the risks of special educational needs in later life for babies born across a wide range of gestation has not previously been investigated.

Daniel MacKay and colleagues at the University of Glasgow’s Section of Public Health analyzed the birth history of a cohort of more than 400,000 Scottish schoolchildren. The researchers found that compared with children born at 40 weeks, children born at 37 to 39 weeks of gestation were 1.16 times as likely to have special educational needs. Although the risk of special educational needs was much higher in preterm than in early-term babies, because many more children (about one third) were born between 37 and 39 weeks than before 37 weeks (one in 20 babies), early-term births accounted for 5.5 percent of cases of special educational needs. Preterm deliveries accounted for only 3.6 percent of cases.

These results show that even a baby born at 39 weeks — the normal timing for elective deliveries these days — has an increased risk of special educational needs compared with a baby born a week later.

The study was funded by a project grant from NHS Health Scotland.

Source: PLoS Medicine