Children who are born during the late term (41 weeks) of their mothers' pregnancy are more likely to score better in cognitive tests compared to those who were born within a full term (39 to 40 weeks), a new study says.

Dr. David N. Figlio, an education and social policy professor at Northwestern University, said that late-term births have long been associated with an increased occurrence of health problems in newborn babies.

However, because of limitations on available data, researchers haven't been able to determine whether these health problems persist long after the infant's birth or if there are also some advantages to having been born during the late term of pregnancy.

In their recent study featured in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, Figlio and his colleagues discovered that late-term births are not only associated with higher health problem risk for children, but they may be linked to improved cognitive performance as well.

Measuring Children's Physical And Cognitive Abilities

To find out the impact of late-term births on children, the researchers examined data collected from more than 1.4 million Florida children.

All of the children involved in the study were single births, and about 80 percent of them were enrolled in public schools. The participants were born within the gestation period of 37 to 41 weeks. Their year of birth ranged from 1994 to 2002.

Figlio and his team then determined the children's physical and cognitive abilities through the use of school-based measurements.

For the physical outcomes, the researchers used the following measurements:

1. Having abnormal conditions for newborns

2. Physical disabilities included in school records, which includes placement Exceptional Student Education (ESE) program because of impairments or conditions that require long-term stays at home or at the hospital

For the cognitive outcome, the researchers used the following measurements:

1. The scores from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) in reading and mathematics for 8- to 15-year-olds.

2. The "gifted" status of the children, which classifies them as being "capable of high performance" or having "superior intellectual development"

3. Poor cognitive outcome, which is defined as having a score in the fifth percentile among FCAT takers or being exempted from the test because of disability

The researchers then compared the results of children born at late-term and those that are born at full-term.

They found that those born at late-term scored higher average FCAT scores during grade school and middle school compared with those born at full-term.

Late-term children also had a 2.8 percent better chance of falling under the "gifted" status and a 3.1 percent lower probability of having poor cognitive results.

However, these same children have also been found to have a 2.1 percent higher chance of developing physical disabilities by the time they reach school age. They also had a higher likelihood of having health issues at the time of their birth.

Figlio and his colleagues noted that there could be a "tradeoff" between cognitive and physical outcomes in children born during the late-term of pregnancy.

They believe parents and doctors can make use of their findings to help them determine the best course for inducing delivery.

Photo: Wellspring Community School | Flickr 

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