FRIDAY, March 2, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Preemies face a relatively unhealthy childhood when compared with full-term babies, and new British research suggests that the degree to which a child's health is compromised seems to depend on exactly how premature the child was.
Those born between the 32nd and 36th week of gestation (moderate/late preterm) appeared to have more health issues than those born slightly later in the 37th or 38th week (early term), the study found.
The findings are the result of work conducted by researchers from the Universities of Leicester, Liverpool, Oxford, Warwick and the British National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit, and were published online March 1 in the BMJ.
To explore the health of preemies, Elaine Boyle, senior lecturer in neonatal medicine at the University of Leicester, and colleagues analyzed data from more than 18,000 British babies who were born between 2000 and 2001.
Each baby's health status was assessed at 9 months, 3 years and 5 years. The information gathered included height, weight, number of trips to the hospital and use of prescription medications, as well as the onset of chronic illnesses, disabilities and wheezing, among other factors.
The result: compared with babies delivered at full-term (between 39 to 41 weeks), those born between the 32nd and 38th week were much more likely to have been readmitted to the hospital in the first few months following birth.
In all, the most important predictor of disease among children between 3 and 5 years of age was being born prematurely (either moderate/late preterm, or early term), the study authors pointed out in a journal news release.
Children born between the 33rd and 36th weeks of pregnancy were more likely to have asthma or wheezing issues than full-term babies. And more generally, the more premature a baby was, the more likely he or she could expect poorer health, the investigators found.
The study authors also suggested that mothers of babies born before 37 weeks' gestation may share certain characteristics. For example, the researchers found they were more likely to be single and less likely to be well-educated or hold jobs in management positions. In addition, those who had given birth to very premature infants were also more likely to smoke and less likely to breast-feed for four months or more.
In conclusion, the study authors reported that: "A gradient of increasing risk of poorer health outcomes with decreasing gestation at birth exists, extending from full term to very preterm gestations . . . [and] these findings have implications for the provision of obstetric and neonatal services and for planning and delivery of later health care services for children."
For more on premature births, visit the March of Dimes.