Pregnant women take note: If you have a choice, go for the full 40 weeks. Even being delivered one week early can make a difference in a child’s chances of needing special education at school age, recent research suggests.

Babies born at a full 40 weeks have fewer learning difficulties later in life than babies born prematurely or even babies born at 37 to 39 weeks, according to a new study in the U.K.

“For any woman who is considering, or being considered for, an elective delivery (caesarean) before term, it is important that she have a discussion with her obstetrician about the potential risks and benefits, to both mother and child, of delivering early,” author Professor Jill Pell, head of the public health and health policy section of the University of Glasgow, tells Metro.


Pell and her colleagues analysed the birth history of more than 400,000 school-age children in Scotland. They found that 4.4 per cent of children born at 40 weeks had special education needs, compared to a slightly higher 4.7 per cent born at 39 weeks and 5.1 per cent of children born between 37 and 39 weeks.

It was already known that babies born before 37 weeks had an even higher rate of special education needs. The results were the same for both vaginal and caesarean deliveries.

This U.K. finding is important because a large number of babies are born at 37 to 39 weeks’ gestation, and the effect of this on learning had not been studied. The research has important implications for woman and their doctors who are scheduling an elective C-section. In the study, the children who required special educational help either had a learning difficulty such as dyslexia or autism, or a physical difficulty such as deafness or poor vision.

“The increased risk from 40 to 39 weeks is small for an individual child,” says Pell. “But one-third of all children are born in the early term weeks (37-39 weeks). Therefore if you calculate the increased risk over the whole population it results in a large number of cases of special educational needs.”

Many women, of course, do not have any control over when their babies are born. And even for those who do, there are so many factors that go into the best timing of a child’s birth. This new finding is just one new piece of information that should be taken into account.

“The decision has to be made on an individual basis depending on the woman’s own clinical circumstances. Our findings help to inform the discussion between women and their obstetricians,” says Dr. Pell. “The risk of special educational needs is only one factor that should be considered alongside all the other risks and benefits.”

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