Babies weighing as little as 1-1/2 pounds would not have survived a generation ago, but through recent technological advances, most of these children are able to live today. However, some of that life-giving technology is also exacting a price on the kids, according to a new study published in the December issue of the medical journal Pediatrics.
Investigators from Case Western Reserve University's School of Medicine found that a significant percentage of very low birth weight babies sustain long-term cognitive and motor developmental problems if they suffer from the lung disease called bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD).
Very small premature infants have a high chance of having BPD because it is caused by prolonged exposure to mechanical ventilation, which premies need because of underdeveloped lungs. BPD is now the leading cause of lung disease in U.S. infants and the third leading cause of chronic lung disease in children.
The study found that by 3 years of age, about 21 percent of infants with BPD tested in the range of retardation, compared to less than 10 percent of very low birth weight babies without BPD, and less than 3 percent of term babies.
"We found that independent of any other complications of prematurity, kids at 3 years of age who had BPD as infants who had been premature had some motor problems that were associated with BPD, " said Lynn Singer, the study's lead author and a professor of pediatrics. "Motor problems included things like balance, holding crayons and pencils, and eye-hand coordination."
On the other hand, said Singer, "In terms of their language and mental development, BPD was not related to any additional problems for them at 3 years of age. However, because BPD babies were smaller and sicker, they had higher rates of delay at 3 years."
Singer said that BPD may be a factor in the higher rates of learning disabilities that pre-term babies experience at school age.