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Research from the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School suggests premature birth can be a factor in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy are considered premature, with specific stages that define the severity of prematurity by gestational age.  The less time in utero and the earlier the birth, the higher the risk of chronic illness, disability, or death.  Despite advances in modern medicine, premature birth is common in the US, impacting approximately one in every ten births.

More immediately apparent are complications of prematurity including underdeveloped lungs, bleeding in the brain, retinal, and cardiac dysfunction as well as neonatal sepsis, among other conditions.  Other conditions may take time to become apparent, such as ADHD.

A recent study in The Journal of Pediatrics looked at associations in symptoms of ADHD in children who were born at term (39 to 40 weeks) and children born in the early-term period of 37 to 38 weeks.  Researchers reviewed data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study, a data sample of 4989 children born in 75 hospitals in US cities between 1998 and 2000.  Using a random sample of 1400 children, study authors interviewed moms and later obtained consent to reach out to teachers to evaluate symptoms using a recognized screening tool.

The research found that children born at early-term had “significantly higher scores” for ADHS than children born at term.  Findings include:

  • Each week of gestational age related to six percent lower hyperactivity score and five percent lower ADHD and inattention scores
  • Compared to children born at term, those born at early-term had 23 percent higher hyperactivity scores and 17 percent higher ADHD scores

Lead author Nancy Reichman, a professor of pediatrics said, “The findings add to growing evidence supporting current recommendations for delaying elective deliveries to at least 39 weeks and suggest that regular screenings for ADHD symptoms are important for children born at 37 to 38 weeks… Infants born at full-term likely benefit from the additional one to two weeks of brain growth in utero compared with those born early-term.”

Research has long been aimed at reducing pre-term births.  This study adds more evidence that prenatal care and decisions around elective deliveries could provide appropriate weeks in-utero that could make a lifetime of difference for babies.

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