How well do premature babies do in school?

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How does premature birth affect children’s school grades? Using Swedish registers of children born 1982–1994, a new study published in Population studiesexamined how preterm students performed at school at age 16.

“We examined how school grades are affected by the degree of prematurity”, says Anna Baranovska-Ratai, Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology, Umeå University, “Our results show that the negative effects of premature birth are mainly observed in children born extremely prematurely, i.e. after less than 28 weeks of gestation. Babies born moderately premature suffer no ill effects. Institute for Demographic Studies) and Berkai Yozcan (London School of Economics and Political Science).

Better socioeconomic resources do not lead to better grades

The researchers also wanted to learn more about what role the environment plays when it comes to preterm children’s school performance. They examine the characteristics of the children’s school districts and the socioeconomic resources of their families.

“In this study, we investigated two types of environments that can potentially support preterm infants,” says Anna Baranovska-Ratai. “The first type is the private resources of the families in which children are raised. The second, and so far less studied, type of environment is the school districts. Regarding our results, we find no evidence for the moderating effect of parental socioeconomic resources .Apparently in Sweden, wealthier or better educated families are not necessarily better prepared to support children born prematurely.But we find that extremely preterm children in the top decile of school districts do as well as full-term children in a middle school district. This raises hopes that schools can play a compensatory role and can help children with some types of health disabilities at an early age.”

Sibling comparisons

To avoid misleading conclusions, researchers compared premature babies with their siblings.

“Families differ in terms of genetic background, economic resources, housing conditions or lifestyle. All of these factors may have implications for the things we focus on in this study: the likelihood of being born prematurely and the child’s school grades,” says Baranovska-Ratai. “Therefore, comparing children from different families can lead to misleading conclusions. But when we look at two children from the same family, one born prematurely and the other born full term, we can be more confident that any differences in their school degree are related to gestational age rather than resulting from substantial differences in family-specific factors unobserved by the investigator.”

The school environment can reduce educational inequality

In future research, Baranowska-Rataj thinks it would be interesting to understand which specific aspects of school the directors’ decisions can be helpful for children who are in a more difficult health situation.

“This study contributes to a wider debate about how local authorities and schools can support children who have health problems. Previous research has paid much attention to the private resources of families that can be mobilized to provide support for children who may need additional help. But when families are seen as the primary source of support, this only reinforces educational inequalities. Our findings show that the school environment can be an important factor in reducing inequalities in the education of children who suffer from health problems’.

The risk of developmental difficulties remains high among children born early

More info:
How preterm birth eff Anna Baranowska-Rataj et al, Preterm birth and educational disadvantage: Heterogeneous effects, Population studies (2022). DOI: 10.1080/00324728.2022.2080247

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Umeå University

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