"The evidence from this study would suggest that elective induction of birth should be approached cautiously," said lead study author Dr. Kimberly Noble, assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. "The data suggest that children born at 37 or 38 weeks may have problems with reduced school achievement later on." Noble encourages parents to be cautious before choosing an early birth for non-medical reasons.
Past research has indicated that babies born before 37 weeks are more likely to have difficulties in the academic sphere, Noble said. The widely held assumption that the development of babies between 37 and 41 weeks is indistinguishable may be inaccurate, she wrote.
"The study looked at data from more than 128,000 births of single babies born between 37 and 41 weeks, the span considered full term," U.S. News reported. "When the children reached third grade, the researchers examined their scores on standardized tests to see if their delivery date suggested a difference in learning ability. They concluded that it did."
Led by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the study is "among the first to look at academic achievement among children considered full term," according to the Wall Street Journal.
"The math and reading scores of children born technically at full-term — 37 to 38 weeks' gestation — lagged slightly behind their peers born just a little later, at 39, 40 or 41 weeks."
Children born at 37 weeks had a 23 percent increased risk of moderate reading impairment compared to those born at the full 41 weeks. Of those children, 11.8 percent "born in week 37 had a mild reading impairment compared with average children their age versus 10.4 percent of children born in weeks 40 and 41, while 2.3 percent of kids born at week 37 had a severe reading impairment compared with 1.8 percent of those born in weeks 40 and 41," the Wall Street Journal reported.
Experts have been unable to determine the exact cause of these academic struggles. "Perhaps there is something about the uterine environment that supports brain development in a favorable way in the last month of pregnancy and perhaps gets disrupted by earlier birth," said Noble.
"While Noble acknowledges that her study could not determine why the babies were born before 39 weeks — such as whether the moms had voluntarily decided to induce labor, or whether an underlying medical condition prompted the earlier birth — the findings add to the evidence that the traditional definition of full-term pregnancy may need revision," Time reported.
"The results should help both mothers and doctors appreciate that not all 'term' infants are the same," she says, especially when it comes to cognitive outcomes later in life; those couple of weeks between 37 and 39 weeks may make a bigger difference than previously thought. "As with many other good things in life, therefore, delaying delivery may be worth the wait," she added.
Rachel Lowry is a reporter intern for the Deseret News.