THE definition of a premature birth should be raised to more than 37 weeks, as babies currently considered full term could still benefit from more time in the womb, a study has suggested.
Research has indicated children born prematurely are a risk of slower brain development, with those born at 41 weeks achieving slightly better scores in academic tests.
Those born at 41 weeks were found to be 33 per cent more likely to suffer severe reading impairment, and 19 more likely to have moderate mathematical impairment.
The study, by Columbia University Medical Center and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, warned parents and medical professionals to use caution when considering an elective early delivery.
The research, led by Kimberly Noble, used academic test scores from 128,000 eight-year-olds in New York public schools to compare with their birth records.
They found children born at 41 weeks scored an average one point higher than those born at 37 weeks.
The difference is not enough to be noticeable between children, Dr Noble said, but was sufficient for mothers to “at least proceed with caution before electing to have an earlier term birth”.
Under current definitions, babies born at less than 37 weeks are classed as premature.
Judy Aschner, a paediatrics professor at America’s Vanderbilt University Medical Centre, said: “I don’t want to panic mums whose babies come at 37 weeks, but those elective early deliveries really need to stop.”
The study has now been published journal Pediatrics.
Last month, a study by King's College London found premature babies are twice as likely to suffer from severe mental conditions like depression and bipolar disorder in adulthood as those born on schedule.
Babies born at 36 weeks gestation or earlier had double the chance of being admitted to hospital for mental disorders as those born on term, while those born at 32 weeks or earlier had three times the risk.