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Late Preterm Babies May Experience Brain Abnormalities

baby holding Mother

The field of obstetrics has rapidly minimized the risks preterm babies face. Among “late preterm” babies—those born between 32 and 36 weeks gestation—outcomes are generally excellent, and parents may not even conceive of their babies as premature. These babies accounted for 8.1% of all births in 2012, and the U.S. has the highest preterm birth rate. A new study of late preterm babies suggests that they may have ongoing differences in brain development, giving doctors and pregnant women a strong incentive to allow babies to remain in utero as long as possible.

Brain Abnormalities in Late Preterm Babies

The study’s lead author, Jennifer M. Walsh, of the Melbourne-based Royal Women’s Hospital, argues that, in very early preterm babies, brain damage is often more obvious. Most studies of preterm births look at these children, but children born at 32 to 36 weeks gestation account for 80% of all preterm births.

To study the effects of preterm birth on these babies, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to compare the brains of 199 late preterm babies to the brains of 50 babies born between 38 and 44 weeks gestation. The researchers found that preterm babies had smaller brains at term-equivalent age (the age at which the babies normally would have been born) than their full-term peers had at birth.

Preterm babies also showed less myelination in one area of the brain, and less developed gyral folding than full-term babies. Myelination and gyral folding play important roles in early brain development, and much brain growth occurs during the last two months of pregnancy.

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Reducing the Risk of Preterm Birth

The researchers point out that medication coupled with developmental interventions can help undermine the effects of preterm birth. Preventing unnecessary preterm births, though, dramatically reduces babies’ susceptibility to a host of developmental problems. In 2012, the March of Dimes gave the U.S. a “C” grade for working to reduce the preterm birth rate. The National Institutes of Health recommends five key strategies to reduce preterm birth in the United States:

  • Adding a stitch to the cervix of high-risk women diagnosed with a short or incompetent cervix.
  • Reducing smoking among pregnant women.
  • Using one embryo for in vitro fertilization; multiple births increase the risk of preterm labor.
  • Eliminating elective C-sections and labor inductions that are not medically necessary.
  • Offering progesterone injections to high-risk women, including those who have a history of preterm birth.

Previous research has shown that preterm babies are more likely to develop conditions such as attention deficit, cerebral palsy, behavior problems, and cognitive delays. They’re also at a greater risk of sudden death syndrome.


  1. Jaslow, R. (2013, November 1). Premature birth rates hit 15-year low, but U.S. still lags behind. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/premature-birth-rates-hit-15-year-low-but-us-still-lags-behind/
  2. MRI shows brain abnormalities in late preterm infants. (2014, June 10). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140610102008.htm
  3. Premature birth. (2011, December 29). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/premature-birth/basics/complications/con-20020050
  4. QuickStats: Percentage of infants born late preterm, by mother’s state of residence. (2014, May 23). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6320a6.htm

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  • anna June 12th, 2014 at 2:25 PM #1

    My first child was late pre term, born at 35 weeks, but she has never had any health or mental problems as a result. I know that we have been lucky because there are many families who can’t say that, but sje didn’t even have to go to NICU so we were very blessed as a result. I would love to hear something that studies those babies who go past normal gestation and to see if there are also ongoing health concerns for these children as well.

  • Bud June 13th, 2014 at 2:30 PM #2

    With all of the information and education that is available to families, it is astounding just how much of a problem babies still being norn early is for some women. Even the ones who seemingly do everything right whhile they are pregnant still seem to have a hard time carrying the baby to full term and there has to be some answers out there somewhere but it seems that doctors and researchers alike are still trying to figure out those answers. Is it something environmental or something genetic that could be causing so many babies to be born early? And is it something that we have begun to accept as the new normal because it does happen so frequently?

  • rose June 16th, 2014 at 5:17 PM #3

    What could possibly be something positive about scheduling to have your baby early? To meet a specific deadline or something? So that you can plan your vacation? Give me a break, all this elective stuff needs to stop.

  • cara June 17th, 2014 at 4:29 AM #4

    We get some of the worlds’ best prenatal care as well as some of the best care for ourselves even before we get pregnant so why is this still such a problem in the US?
    There has to be some environmental factors that we just aren’t aware of yet that causes preterm births to be such a huge problem for our country.
    Are there any other societies who deal with this on such a large scale like we do?
    It’s like I hardly even know anyone who goes full term anymore, and we all exercise and take care of ourselves so it’s kind of a mystery. And I know that if it is for us then it has to be a huge concern for the emdical community.

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