Premature babies and the risk of development problems

Despite being born early, the majority of children who are born prematurely go on to develop like their full-term peers.

Late preterm babies
Most premature babies are born just a little bit early at 34-36 weeks – they’re called late preterm babies.

Many of these babies’ organs are fully developed, but there are still lots of changes happening in their brains. If they have to stay in hospital at all, it’s probably because they need to put on weight and learn to feed by coordinating their sucking, breathing and swallowing.

Late preterm babies have fewer risks than premature babies born earlier. Any problems they do have are usually less severe.

Late pretermers do have a very small risk of development problems and respiratory difficulties compared with full-term babies.

For example, when you compare these children to their peers at 6-7 years of age, they have a higher risk of delay or disability in social and emotional development, language, and mathematical and physical skills. They’re also more likely to stay an extra year in kindergarten, have school and behaviour problems, and need to go to hospital more often than full-term children.

Extremely premature babies
The most premature babies – those born at less than 28 weeks – and babies with extremely low birth weight (less than 1 kg) have the highest risk of development problems. Babies who have more medical complications during their stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) also have a higher risk of long-term development problems.

Extremely premature babies are more at risk of delay or disability in social and emotional development, learning, language, and mathematical and physical skills.

Premature babies can also have other subtle developmental issues – for example, a higher proportion of children born prematurely are socially shy compared with children born full term.

Being confident in reading your baby helps you avoid overprotecting your premmie. Amy gets that she is smaller and weaker than others, but she doesn’t need me hovering over her. If you stand back and stop your natural instinct to interfere, you find that kids are far more naturally capable than we allow.
– Mother of a premature baby, now four years old

Helping your premature baby’s development

Lots of factors shape your child’s development.

His early birth and any medical complications are certainly important, but your home environment and his relationships have an impact too.

In fact, a loving, stable, stimulating and safe home environment, where your child can form a close bonded relationship with you, supports her development. This can also help to make some development problems less severe and to help children with early delay catch up by later childhood or the teenage years.

One of the best things you can do is make plenty of time every day for playing, interacting, relaxing and having fun with your child. In the early years, play is how your child learns. Play is also one of the best relationship builders for you and your child.

The following things can also help your child’s development:

If your child’s development starts to lag behind norms for corrected age, early intervention can make a lot of difference – the earlier the better.

It’s important to keep a careful eye on your child’s development, but there’s a big range of ‘normal’. Use your baby’s corrected age when you’re looking at development. But if you’re worried about your child’s development, speak to your GP or paediatrician.