Developmental Outcomes of Premature, Low Birth Weight, and Medically Fragile Infants

Maureen Kessenich, MA


NAINR. 2003;3(3) 

In This Article

Adolescent and Adult Outcomes

While considerable research has investigated infant, preschool, and school-age outcomes of prematurity and low birth weight, there is a dearth of research examining longer-term outcomes into adolescence and adulthood. Only a small number of studies have begun to investigate the effects of prematurity and low birth weight on young adults' cognitive, academic, social-emotional, and behavioral development. Most of these studies have identified significant differences in the intellectual, educational, professional, and social-emotional outcomes of adolescents and young adults born premature or with low versus normal birth weights.[26,27,78,89] However, these studies have only begun to graze the surface with regard to our understanding of how low birth weight and prematurity affect outcomes into adolescence and adulthood.

In terms of cognitive and educational outcomes, researchers have found that adolescents born prematurely with extremely low birth weights tend to demonstrate lower scores on IQ and achievement tests, higher rates of grade retention, higher rates of enrollment in special education and tutoring classes, and lower rates of graduation from high school.[26,27,78,89,90,91] Although the majority of research on young adults born with low birth weights has documented poorer intellectual and educational outcomes, two studies from Europe did report that young adults with very low birth weights have levels of educational attainment comparable with normal birth weight populations.[88,92]

Even fewer studies have attempted to examine the social-emotional and behavioral outcomes of adolescents and young adults born prematurely or with low birth weights. Hack et al[26] reported that, contrary to their hypothesis, very low birth weight adolescents were less likely to use alcohol and drugs, engage in sexual activity, become pregnant, or engage in delinquent behaviors such as truancy. However, previous studies[87,88] have documented equivalent or even increased rates of risk-taking behaviors. A higher incidence of externalizing and internalizing behaviors has also been documented in studies of adolescents born with low birth weights.[75,77]


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