TUESDAY, Feb. 7, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- A Canadian study has good news for parents of babies born at an extremely low birth weight: As these children grow up, they seem to catch up with their normal-birth-weight peers -- graduating from high school, getting jobs, living on their own and entering into adult relationships.
"What we found, to our pleasant surprise, was that extremely low-birth-weight babies -- although one-quarter have disabilities -- at young adulthood seem to have adapted fairly well," said study author Dr. Saroj Saigal, director of the Neonatal Follow-up Program at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University in Ontario.
"They were doing just about as well as children born of normal birth weight. A similar number were employed and education levels were similar," Saigal said.
Results of the study appear in the Feb. 8 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
However, not everyone agrees that the picture is quite so rosy.
In an editorial in the same issue of the journal, Dr. Maureen Hack, of Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, pointed out that the babies in this study were overwhelmingly from socially advantaged families and a country that provides access to universal health care. In other countries, and in less educated and poorer family settings, studies have indicated that low-birth-weight infants don't do as well as their normal-weight peers.
Hack, a professor of pediatrics and director of High Risk Follow-Up at the hospital and Case Western Reserve University, said, "This study is promising and shows that in an optimal environment, these children can do remarkably well. But I think they tend to have more educational difficulties because they often have lower IQs."
"In our studies, we tested [low-birth-weight babies] in adulthood and they did have lower IQs and more difficulty with academic subjects," she added. "That comes from all the complications of being premature -- they're sicker, have more respiratory distress and more infections."
The outcome of this debate may well become even more important in the coming years. Late last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that found more than half a million babies were born prematurely in the United States in 2004. That's the highest number of premature births ever recorded, up 18 percent from 1990.
Saigal's study followed 149 children who were born weighing less than 2.2 pounds in the late 1970s and early 1980s until young adulthood -- average age of 23.3 years. The researchers assessed the children periodically and compared them to a group of age and sex-matched normal-birth-weight children from the age of 8 on.
The study looked at a number of factors, such as educational levels, employment and living status, so the researchers could assess overall functioning in society.
Twenty-seven percent of the extremely low-birth-weight children had neurosensory impairments, such as cerebral palsy, autism, blindness and cognitive impairments. Just 2 percent of the normal-birth-weight cohort had these impairments.
Educational attainment was similar -- 82 percent of the low-birth-weight group graduated from high school, while 87 percent of the normal-weight group did. Thirty-two percent of the low-weight group was pursuing a higher education, compared to 33 percent in the normal-weight group.
Forty-eight percent of the low-birth-weight group was permanently employed vs. 57 percent of the normal-birth-weight group. Forty-two percent of the low-weight group was living independently compared to 53 percent of the normal-weight group. For marriage, the numbers were 23 percent and 25 percent, respectively; for parenthood, they were 11 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
Saigal said none of the differences was statistically significant.
"When you look at this issue from a lifetime perspective, these children have either outgrown or adapted. Some recovery does occur. If children are not doing well at an early age, there's still hope they'll show later recovery," she said.
"Parents should be hopeful that with intervention, children can adapt and show improvement and function well in society," Saigal added.
Hack said that, while not all children will do as well as those in the Canadian study, most low-birth-weight babies do "all right."
"They can achieve their best potential, though I still think they will have more difficulties than normal-weight children," she said.
To learn more about premature babies, visit the March of Dimes.