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Infants born three to six weeks early -- considered late preterm -- are at risk for learning problems, but they can be overcome, researchers say.
"Our findings highlight an opportunity for pediatric providers to offer prevention strategies to parents of late preterm infants to mitigate academic risk, and promote academic resilience through sensitive parenting," said lead author Dr. Prachi Shah, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor.
Low level of maternal education, prenatal tobacco use, twins/multiple gestation and male sex increased the risk for deficits in math and reading by kindergarten for late preterm infants, the study found.
Pediatricians can foster sensitive parenting to help these kids, researchers said. They can promote early relational health, where parents provide a safe, stable and nurturing relationship with their children.
"We found that early sensitive parenting experiences were associated with early academic success for late preterm infants," Shah said in a university news release.
The researchers used data from a study that has followed thousands of children since birth in 2001.
They tracked academic progress for 1,200 late preterm infants over time. They recorded developmental assessments at 9 months and 24 months, and followed up with reading and math scores at times when children would be in preschool and kindergarten.
While most late preemies developed reading skills on a schedule similar to their full-term peers, they had lower average math scores at all points. The biggest performance gap was in kindergarten.
It's not clear why late preterm infants have vulnerability in math development but not in reading. Researchers said it could suggest unique brain development characteristics including structural changes in neural pathways related to visuoconstructive skills. Visuoconstructive abilities involve coordination of fine motor skills and tasks such as drawing.
"Now that we have identified patterns and predictors of reading and math skill development, we can help inform pediatric guidelines to help late preterm infants, who are the majority of infants born preterm, thrive in the period before kindergarten," Shah said.
Study findings were published Aug. 25 in the journal Pediatric Research.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers positive parenting tips.
SOURCE: Michigan Medicine - University of Michigan, news release, Aug. 29, 2023
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