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Being Born A Few Weeks Early May Affect Learning and Behavior

New research has found that children born just a few weeks prematurely have more social, behavioral and academic problems than children born at full term.

For their study, researchers at the University of Iowa conducted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans on 32 children between the ages of seven and 13 who were born at 34 to 36 weeks’ gestation.

They also administered cognitive tests to the children, including the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children; Benton Judgment of Line Orientation, which assesses visual perception; Grooved Pegboard, which assesses fine motor skills and coordination; and Children’s Memory Scale. Parents also completed a behavioral assessment.

These results were then compared to 64 children born at full term who completed the same cognitive and behavioral assessments, neurological exam, and MRI sequences.

Preliminary analysis showed differences in both cognitive function and brain structure in the late preterm children compared to full term children, according to the researchers.

Functionally, late preterm children had more difficulties with visuospatial reasoning and visual memory.

They also had slower processing speed. Processing speed refers to the ability to automatically perform a simple task in an efficient manner, the researchers explain. Children with slower processing speed may require more time in the classroom to accomplish a task, they add.

Structurally, the brains of late preterm children had less total cerebral white matter, which is critical to communication between nerve cells, and smaller thalami, a brain region involved in sensory and motor signaling, the study discovered.

Parents of late preterm children also reported more problems with hyperactivity, inattention, opposition, and aggression than parents of full term children, according to the researchers.

“Late preterm birth accounts for eight percent of all births each year in the United States, making it a public health issue,” said Jane E. Brumbaugh, M.D., F.A.A.P., and an associate at the University of Iowa Stead Family Department of Pediatrics.

“The effects of late preterm birth on the brain have not yet been fully characterized, and it has been assumed that there are no significant consequences to being born a few weeks early. Our preliminary findings show that children born late preterm have differences in brain structure and deficits in specific cognitive skills compared to children born full term,” she said.

“The developing brain is vulnerable to what most might consider a minor ‘insult’ in being born late preterm. Moreover, these effects are enduring,” added Peggy C. Nopoulos, M.D., a professor of psychiatry, neurology, and pediatrics with University of Iowa Health Care.

The study, supported by grants from Stead Family Department of Pediatrics, the University of Iowa, and Iowa Neonatology Investment Program, Division of Neonatology, University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, was presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics

Being Born A Few Weeks Early May Affect Learning and Behavior

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Being Born A Few Weeks Early May Affect Learning and Behavior. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 5 May 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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