When children are born prematurely, parents worry about the long-term effects of their early arrival. While survival rates for preterm infants have improved dramatically, they may experience later cognitive and academic challenges—a phenomenon observed most often in children born more than eight weeks early.

Dr. Jamie Mahurin-Smith has studied language skills longitudinally in a cohort of 114 children, half of whom were born prematurely. Her most recent publication describes outcomes for these children at ages 11 and 12. It offers some hopeful news to families concerned about long-term effects.

“What we’re seeing is that the differences between the children born prematurely and the children born at full-term seem to diminish as the kids get older,” Mahurin-Smith said. “When these kids were 7, there was a significant gap between the two groups. When they reached junior high, though, that gap vanished.”

Mahurin-Smith noted two factors that make a difference in how children fare. One is their attention skills. 

“We know that children born prematurely are much more likely to experience attention challenges, even though they may not be diagnosed with ADHD,” Mahurin-Smith said. “It’s important for families and teachers to identify contexts that facilitate learning in kids born preterm, whether or not they qualify for formal support services.”

A second factor is demographic differences. 

“Our study, like a lot of research into preterm birth, includes a high proportion of parents who are well-educated, with access to health care,” Mahurin-Smith said. “This seems to be a theme in studies that find catch-up growth. Kids’ environments can make a difference in long-term outcomes. A better understanding of the factors that buffer against long-term adverse outcomes can lend empirical support to calls for equity in access to health care and education. It’s our hope that all children born prematurely can grow up and go to school in environments that equip them to reach their full potential.”