Study: Gestational age matters more than birth weight

March 10, 2008

A large study of preterm births in France has found that over two in five babies born very prematurely will need specialized health services by age 5...

A large study of preterm births in France has found that over two in five babies born very prematurely will need specialized health services by age 5 (Lancet 2008;371:813).

There are over 80,000 premature births in the United States each year. While many of these children's lives are saved due the new medical technologies, there are knowledge gaps as to how a premature baby's life will be affected by its low birth weight and preterm status.

Beatrice Larroque, MD, PhD, and colleagues compared 1,817 children born between 22 and 32 gestational weeks in 1997 to 667 children born at full-term (39 to 40 weeks). Thirty-two percent of preterm children scored under the minimum normal grade of 85 on the mental composite processing scale, which measures 5-year-olds' cognitive abilities, and 12% scored less than 70. Only 12% of the full-term children scored less than 85, and 3% less than 70.

In addition, 9% of the very preterm children had cerebral palsy, and 5% had a severe disability, such as the inability to walk. Also, 42% of very preterm children were using the services of speech therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, and psychologists. Twenty percent of the children seeking special care were not disabled, but exhibited behavioral problems.

Larroque found that gestational age was a better judge of development level than birth weight.