Babies born as early as two weeks before their due date are usually not considered premature enough to get special neonatal treatment. But that practice is based more on doctors' experience than on scientific evidence. Scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston found in a recent study that there may be additional risks for near-term babies that could warrant more careful attention by doctors.
What the scientists wanted to know: Do babies born before but near their due date have a greater risk of health problems than those born on or after their due date?
What they did: The scientists looked at the medical records of 90 babies who had been born near term and 95 babies born at term, all born at Massachusetts General Hospital between October 1997 and October 2000. The researchers examined birth weight, Apgar scores of infant responsiveness after birth, body temperature, breathing problems, jaundice, length of hospital stay, and hospital costs.
What they found: Near-term infants had significantly more medical problems compared with babies who were not born until on or after their due date. They weighed about the same at birth and had similar Apgar scores but were more likely to have problems breathing, jaundice, and a low body temperature and to require intravenous fluids to treat a problem (for example, poor feeding habits). Eighteen of the 90 near-term infants had six or more medical diagnoses, as opposed to none of the full-term infants. Because they were more likely to have problems at birth, near-term infants usually stayed in the hospital longer than full-term babies. Babies born before their due date had an average of $429 more spent on their care than did full-term babies.
What it means to you: This study shows that near-term babies are not developmentally identical to babies born at or after their due date and should be evaluated carefully for medical problems when they are born. However, the good news is that most of the issues described in the study are not serious and can be easily identified and treated in the hospital.
Caveats: The scientists looked only at the babies' medical records immediately after birth; they don't know whether or not those problems will result in long-term issues. They write that they will continue studying these children as they grow to see if being born near term has any consequences after infancy.
Find out more: There is a dearth of websites about near-term birth because it is considered to be no less risky than full-term birth. However, the March of Dimes, the organization originally founded to fight polio, now helps raise money for research into premature birth. It has information about pregnancy and birth for all mothers, including parents of preemies.
Read the article: Wang, M.L. et al. "Clinical Outcomes of Near-Term Infants." Pediatrics. August 2, 2004, Vol. 114, No. 2, pp. 372376
Abstract online: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org