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Study: Babies born 3 weeks early face possible developmental delays

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ATLANTA -

It's usually not a comfortable time for women, but the last weeks of pregnancy are critical for babies. Researchers say their brain grows by nearly a third in those final five weeks of gestation.
        
A new study by the Emory School of Nursing shows being born just three or four weeks early may raise a child's risk of developmental delays.

For the last few years, March of Dimes has been pushing the message that "babies can wait," encouraging women not to schedule early deliveries in order to give their babies the full 40 weeks to develop and grow.

This research, published in the journal Pediatrics, shows that even slightly preterm babies may have a harder time learning when they go on to school.
     
Kymani Barco is just 2, but he's struggled a little bit to keep up with the other preschoolers In Earnestine Whitfield class at the Dunbar Early Learning and Literacy Resource Center in Mechanicsville.

Part of Kymani's challenge is that he was born six weeks premature and lost critical time to develop in the womb, but it was something his mother Ariane Barco had no control over.

"Actually came on by surprise. My water broke maybe two weeks after I had gotten into a car accident," Barco said.

Once Kymani started school, his teachers noticed he was behind some of his peers.

"One thing that the teachers started to notice was that he actually had a six week delay compared to his classmates. He was the only preemie in his room," his mother said. "He would get real agitated and get stressed. It would just get overwhelming for him to try to catch up and learn as fast as everybody else."

That makes sense to Dr. Bryan Williams and researchers at Emory University's Woodruff School of Nursing. He says we've long known that severely or even mildly premature babies face learning delays. But new research shows that even late preterm babies, born just shy of 40 weeks, may face some of the very same challenges.

"Because a child who is born at 37 weeks, the brain is not fully developed," Williams said.

The Emory team tracked babies born between 36 and 37 weeks as they moved into the first grade to see how they performed on their Criterion-Reference Competency Tests. They found late preterm children were 19 percent more likely to fail the math section of the exam than their full term peers.

"So, here are kids who are seemingly normal with respect to the gestational age, they may in fact suffer significant developmental delays and real world consequences," Williams said. "That's significant because many of these kids fall through the cracks with respect to services."

Williams says we need to learn more about how early deliveries affect children down the road.

"It's key that we intervene very early because the literature clearly shows that from birth on is a critical period, particularly from birth until 3, to get those brain cells excited, to expand and intervene in a child's development," Williams said.

For Kymani, every day is a chance to catch up and make up for lost time.

Ariane has been working very hard with Kymani outside of school, to help him overcome his delays.

This study, published in the April journal Pediatrics is eye-opening because it shows that even slightly preterm babies can experience learning delays and those problems can affect them for years.

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