Babies born at 39 weeks – the “risks” explained

A look behind the sensational claims in today’s papers reveal risk for babies born at 39 weeks developing “special educational needs” is slight

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Babies born at 39 weeks – just a week before term, have been found to have a slightly higher risk of developing “special educational needs” by a retrospective study of 400,000 children.

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Researchers found that babies born just 1 week early are more likely to go on to develop learning difficulties and conditions such as ADHD and autism.

Is there really something to worry about? Actually, the figures tell a more reassuring story. Researchers found that births between 37 and 39 weeks produced babies with a 5.1% risk of suffering from a development condition. However, for full-term babies, the risk is 4% showing that these slightly early births slightly affect the risk.

The study comes as the number of elective caesareans, usually performed at 39 weeks, is on the increase.  In England and Wales, 1 in 5 babies are born at 39 weeks either by caesarean or naturally. However, birth by caesarean is usually due to medical complications which may already put the baby at a higher risk of these developmental conditions. The fact that due dates are notoriously inaccurate further complicates the findings.

Professor Andrew Shennan, an obstetrician and spokesman for the baby charity, Tommy’s has called for more research into births between 37 and 39 weeks. “The earlier the birth, the greater the risk, but later pre-term births are far more common,” he said. “However, the cause of early birth may contribute to the risk. For example, a baby who’s already sick may need to be delivered early to give it a chance of survival,” Prof Andrew continued.

The research has not changed recommendations on essential caesareans. Doctors will continue to consider the safety of mum and baby before deciding on a date for the operation.

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If you are at all worried about a planned caesarean or early birth, speak to your midwife.

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