Babies born prematurely by just three weeks in summer months more likely to fall behind in school, study finds

Jamie Johnson

Babies born just three weeks prematurely during the summer months are more likely to fall behind in school, a new study has found.

The odds of a child not achieving a ‘Good Level of Development’ at the end of reception year, if they were born prematurely, were approximately twice as high as those for children born at full term, according to researchers at Leeds University.

The study, published in the journal ‘Archives of Disease in Childhood’ found that the children most at risk were those born prematurely in the summer months (June to August), who consequently started school a year earlier than expected. 

These children were three times less likely to reach a good level of development compared to other children born prematurely during the summer, whose early arrival didn’t change the year they started school in.  

Researchers looked at more than 10,000 school children from the Born in Bradford birth cohort study focussing on the complex interplay between the educational disadvantage of being born moderately premature, and when during the year a child was born, to understand whether extra support might be necessary for some children.

Doctors and nurses tend to babies in neo-natal care units Credit: Born in Bradford

Children born prematurely can have poorer reading and maths skills than those born at full term, and the difficulties they experience at school continue to have effects into adulthood.

According to separate research from the University of Warwick, by the age of 42, adults who were born prematurely have lower incomes and are less likely to own their own home than those born at full term.

Delayed yeargroup entry for babies born in the late summer is not uncommon, but Dr Katherine Pettinger, a neonatal doctor who co-authored the Leeds University study said that even this would not make up the gap caused by premature birth.

“Whilst it seems like an obvious solution, delayed entry for premature children is not likely to compensate for being born early, as we found that within a given school year, the risks to development faced by children born premature did not vary depending on when within that school year they were born,” she said.

“To try to better support this at risk group we instead suggest that schools should be informed which of their pupils were born prematurely so they can be given extra support, particularly early on in their schooling.”

According to national guidelines, once discharged from hospital severely premature children are given follow up medical support, and it is recommended that their schools are informed of their circumstances. But for moderately premature children, born between three to eight weeks early, there is no routine follow up support offered, so schools are unlikely to be informed.

The study recommends that tailored advice should be provided to families of premature children, while learning resources should be given to teachers to support those children in the classroom.