Fertility and pregnancy * Babies and children

Premature babies at higher risk of poor health

Premature babies at higher risk of poor health More susceptible to asthma

Babies born just two or three weeks prematurely are at higher risk of poor health, according to the latest research.

The authors of a report published today on the website of the British Medical Journal, bmj.com, studied over 18,000 babies born in the UK with their health outcomes - including height, weight and body mass index - assessed at nine months, three years and five years.

Parents reported on hospital visits, recurring illness, disability, wheezing, the use of prescription medication and overall child health.

The authors, from the Universities of Leicester, Liverpool, Oxford, Warwick and the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit, found a strong correlation between shorter gestation and higher risk of poor health outcomes, with the greatest contribution to disease at the age of both three and five being born moderate / late preterm or early term.

The authors found that babies born at 32 - 36 weeks and 37 - 38 weeks required re-admission to hospital more often than full term babies, born at 39 - 41 weeks. Babies born moderate and late preterm, between 33 - 36 weeks, faced an increased risk of asthma and wheezing compared to full term babies.

According to the study, the mothers of children born at less than 37 weeks were more likely to be single and less educated, were more likely to smoke and less likely to breast feed for four months or longer.

Because the study demonstrates a "continuum of increasing risk of adverse outcome with increasing prematurity, even approaching full term gestation," the authors say it is not appropriate to group babies as pre-term or term.

The authors called for further research into factors that influence the health of pre-term babies, to better inform their care.

Commenting on the research, Leanne Metcalf, assistant director of research at Asthma UK, said: "Although it might at first seem quite surprising that even children born in weeks 33-36 had an increased risk of asthma, it is actually quite reasonable to believe that the gradual development of the lungs might influence the risk of asthma in a similar way.

"There are a number of things that pregnant women can do to reduce the risk of prematurity in their baby, including maintaining a healthy weight, staying active and avoiding stress, smoking and infections.

"Obesity, stress and smoking have also all been separately linked to an increased risk of asthma in children, smoking especially, so taking steps to avoid them will enable pregnant women to give their baby the best possible chance of a healthy childhood."

This article was published on Fri 2 March 2012

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