Gestation study finds pregnant women should focus on going full term to reduce risks

Pregnant women should be encouraged to go full term and avoid elective premature deliveries, unless there is a good clinical reason, in order to reduce the risk of babies developing special educational needs (SEN) later in life, a new study has found.

The investigation was the first to study the risks of SEN in later life in babies born across a range of gestation from 24 to 40 weeks. It is already well-known that a baby born prematurely (at less than 37 weeks) is more likely to have SEN, such as autism or deafness, later in life than one at full term (40 weeks).

Professor Jill Pell, Head of the Public Health and Health Policy Section at the University of Glasgow, and a team of researchers analysed the birth history of a cohort of more than 400,000 schoolchildren from Scotland for the study

The team found that babies born at 37 to 39 weeks gestation were 16 per cent more likely to have SEN than those delivered at full term.

Prof Pell explained: “The risk of a baby developing SEN later in life is much higher in preterm than in early-term babies but this is offset by the fact that many more children are born between 37 and 39 weeks (about a third of babies) than before 37 weeks (one in 20 babies).

“Therefore, early-term births accounted for 5.5 per cent of cases of SEN whereas pre-term deliveries accounted for only 3.6 per cent of cases. These findings would suggest that, whilst the risks are low, pregnant women should try to avoid elective premature delivery unless there is a good clinical reason.”

The outcome of the retrospective cohort study of 407,503 schoolchildren from across Scotland is published in the latest edition of the PloS Medicine journal.

For more information contact Nicolas White in the University of Glasgow Media Relations Office on 0141 330 3535 or email

First published: 9 June 2010

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