Preterm Infants Can Catch Up By Teen Years, Study Shows

A new study performed in Australia suggests that preterm infants with cognitive disabilities can catch up by their teenage years, allowing them to perform just as well as peers who were born during their normal delivery term.

According to reports, a recent study performed at the Robinson Research Institute, at the University of Adelaide, discovered that in many instances, preterm infants will go on to catch up with their peers in terms of cognitive abilities once they reach their teens. However, this only applies to infants who didn’t experience brain damage during infancy. In addition, a child’s home environment plays a major role in brain development and their future cognitive abilities. 

Per Julia Pitcher, the lead author of the study, social advantages, as well as genetics may also play a role. 

“Every year, 10 percent of Australian babies are born preterm, and many studies have shown that these children often have cognitive difficulties in childhood. This new study has some positive news. We looked at the factors that determine cognitive abilities in early adolescence, and found that whether or not you were born preterm appears to play a relatively minor role. Of significantly more importance is the degree of social disadvantage you experienced in your early life after birth, although genetics is important,” said Pitcher. 

A total of 145 children, all over the age of 12, were researched during the study. Some of the children were born prematurely while others were born on time. Along with their birth dates, cognitive abilities and each child’s social advantages were also studied.

The study showed proof that babies born at term were more likely to have higher cognitive skills when compared to those born pre-term. However, the environment a pre-term born child grows up in will have one of the biggest impacts on whether the child can catch up with peers in cognitive abilities.

According to Luke Schneider, one of the research officers of the study, brain abnormalities associated with premature births is one of the main reasons why pre-term suffer from cognitive issues. However, with the influence of home and social advantages, these abnormalities can likely be overcome.

“But these abnormalities seem to be amenable to improvement depending on the environment the child grows up in, particularly as an infant, and might account for why some preterm children do better than others,” Schneider said. 

Research is ongoing as to what home and social environment factors contribute to an infant’s chances of catching up with peers and how brain development is affected.

The full study can be seen in the July issue of The Journal of Pediatrics.