Preterm babies -- born as little as two to three weeks early -- face much higher risks of poor health later in childhood than full-term infants, British researchers have determined.
The study, published in the British Medical Journal, linked premature delivery to a variety of health problems – including respiratory conditions -- in children at 3 and 5 years of age.
To reach their conclusions, researchers -- from the Universities of Leicester, Liverpool, Oxford, Warwick and the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit -- studied more than 18,000 British babies born between September 2000 and August 2001. They tracked the overall health of the children at 9 months, 3 years and 5 years – assessing height, weight, hospital visits, illness, disability, wheezing and use of prescribed medication, based on parents’ reports.
What they found: Moderate-to-late preterm (32-36 weeks) and early term (37-38 weeks) babies required re-admission to the hospital in the first few months more often than full-term babies (39-41 weeks). Those born between 33 and 36 weeks also had an increased risk of asthma and wheezing compared to full-term babies.
In fact, the researchers said the greatest contributing factor to disease at the ages 3 and 5 years was being born preterm.
The study found mothers of children born at less than 37 weeks were more likely to be single and smoke. The authors concluded the findings demonstrate a "continuum of increasing risk of adverse outcome with increasing prematurity."