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Risks for babies born one week early – the real story

Today’s headlines announcing that babies born just 1 week early are more likely to have “special educational needs” are sensationalizing the truth

Posted: 9 June 2010
by Kimberley Smith
Building blocks
SEN risk low for both full term and 39-week babies

A study has announced that babies born just one week early at 39 weeks have an increased risk of conditions such as autism and learning difficulties. Researchers analysed the records of more than 400,000 schoolchildren, focusing on conditions including autism, ADHD, deafness and poor vision.

So should be all be worrying? In fact, when you look at the figures the story feels slightly different. The study found that for babies born between 37 and 39 weeks, the risk of developing these conditions was 5.1%. However, at full tern, the risk is still 4% so the early birth only slightly increases that risk.

The warnings come as the number of planned caesareans, usually performed at 39 weeks, is on the rise. The study does point out that elective caesareans are almost always related to health issues for mum or baby which may have influenced these babies level of risk.

In England and Wales 22% of babies are born at 39 weeks, naturally or by caesarean, but due dates are rarely 100% accurate and this also complicates the findings.

“The relationship between early birth and later problems in life is well established,” said Professor Andrew Shennan from St Thomas’s Hospital. He continued, “The earlier the birth, the greater the risk. However the cause of early birth may contribute to the risk. A baby who’s already sick may need to be delivered early to give it a chance of survival.” He also said that more research was necessary.

The risks of waiting to carry out a caesarean at 40 weeks often outweigh the potential developmental risks. Doctors will weigh up the safety of mum and baby before deciding on a caesarean date.

If you are concerned about an elective caesarean or early birth, speak to your midwife.


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risk of elective caesarean, autism, ADHD, learning difficulties, SEN, special needs, early birth, birth at 39 weeks
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