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Study Tracks Premature Babies

Many confront lifelong problems related to development, but they are also less likely to indulge in risky behavior, researchers find.

January 21, 2002|SHANKAR VEDANTAM | WASHINGTON POST

Babies born prematurely continue to have neurological and developmental problems well into early adulthood, according to the first comprehensive study that tracked hundreds of survivors over two decades, researchers said.

The group also had lower IQs, more learning disabilities and higher rates of such disorders as cerebral palsy--a sobering reminder that while ever-larger numbers of premature babies now survive, many may confront lifelong problems.

But researchers also found tremendous reserves of resilience and adaptation in the children and their families. While acknowledging more health problems, many reported that their health and quality of life was better than those of peers who had full-term births.

By followings its subjects into early adulthood, the study extends what researchers have learned about the effects of premature birth. And in a wholly unexpected finding, researchers noted that the premature group was less likely to indulge in risky behaviors such as drug taking and early sex, and less likely to get into scrapes with the law.

"Poorer-functioning children are more susceptible to peer pressure," said Maureen Hack, a professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, explaining why scientists had expected more risk-taking behavior, not less. Although the scientists aren't sure what explains the better behavior, watchful parenting appears to be the most plausible explanation.

"We think there might have been more parental monitoring," said Hack, the lead scientist on the project. "These are very special children to the parents--they were ... expected to die. Some of the parents didn't expect to have another child. If you have a small preemie, you may watch over them more."

The 242 children evaluated by the study are now young adults. They were born after only six to eight months in the womb and weighed less than 3.3 pounds at birth. They tended to be smaller in stature and were less likely to finish high school than 233 comparable children who had spent a full term in the womb. There was a clear correlation between the extent of prematurity and the extent of disability, with more-premature babies being more likely to show more problems later, according to results published in Thursday's edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.

All the children were born between 1977 and 1979 at the Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland.

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