Early-term babies face health challenges that last long past birth. A new study by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) found that early-term babies — babies who were not premature but had been born during the early weeks of what is considered full term — had an increased risk of diabetes and other obesity-related diseases as well as a shortened lifespan when compared to those who were born a couple of weeks later.
"Early-term" babies are defined as those delivered between 37 and 39 weeks. Although pregnancy is considered at full term when gestation lasts between 37 and 42 weeks, babies born between 39 and 41 weeks of gestation have better outcomes than those born either before or afterward.
For the study, researchers investigated hospitalizations of 225,073 children up to age 18 to determine the impact that early-term versus full-term gestation had on pediatric health and hospitalizations.
"We found that hospitalizations up to the age of 18 involving endocrine and metabolic morbidity were found to be more common in the early-term group as compared with the full-term group, especially at ages five and older," says Eyal Sheiner, M.D., Ph.D. In addition, "Obesity was significantly more frequent among the early term."
Children older than five who were born early exhibited significantly higher rates of Type I diabetes than those who were full-term deliveries.
Cesareans were more common in early-term deliveries, and birthweights were significantly less, said Sheiner.
The researchers concluded that these diseases could increase the risk of other associated ills that have a long-term negative impact on health, including a shorter lifespan.
The study was published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
The Ben-Gurion study wasn't the first to show differences between early-term and full-term babies. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that early-term babies were at a disadvantage. "Even though we consider babies born at 37 or 38 weeks almost term, they are still, to a large extent, physiologically immature," said lead researcher Shaon Sengupta.
"We were seeing a significant number of infants born at 37 weeks who looked big and pretty healthy, but who, within a few hours of birth were developing low blood sugar, difficulty in breathing or needed antibiotics, necessitating admission to the neonatal intensive care unit," said senior author Satyan Lakshminrusimha, M.D.
Researchers also found that their learning ability was also affected years later. The reading scores of early-term babies were significantly lower than those of full-term babies, and math scores were also lower.
"Although these early-term babies appeared to be mature, providing a false assurance to clinical providers and parents, and they did well on the Apgar scores, they are nevertheless physiologically immature," said Lakshminrusimha.
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