A new study of 1.3 million babies reveals some reassuring news for the education outcomes of premature babies born as early as 23 weeks.

By Hollee Actman Becker
June 13, 2017
kids ready for school
Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Parents of preemies often worry their kids will struggle in school. But now there's a new study out of Northwestern University that shows infants born early often catch up to their peers academically, which should help ease some of those fears.

Researchers analyzed more than 1.3 million babies born in Florida from 1992 to 2002 with gestational ages of 23 to 41 weeks, who later entered public schools between 1995 and 2012. Here's what they found: Two-thirds of babies born at only 23 or 24 weeks were ready for kindergarten on time, and nearly 2 percent of them were later classified as "gifted."

Yes, the extremely premature babies often scored lower on standardized tests than their full-term peers, but the preterm infants born 25 weeks or later performed only slightly lower, and as the length of pregnancy increased past 28 weeks, the differences in test scores became negligible.

"While some people might be troubled that very premature infants tend to score well below their full-term peers on standardized tests, I believe that the glass is more than half-full," explained senior author David Figlio, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. "Most infants born at 23 to 24 weeks still demonstrate a high degree of cognitive functioning at the start of kindergarten and throughout school."

Pretty comforting. Still, the researchers point out that while the study's data is strong, it does not account for some of the infants' medical issues related to premature birth, nor does it provide information about things that may have helped some of the kids perform better in school, like getting extra support or their biological makeup.

Explained Dr. Craig Garfield, associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine: "Our future work in this area will focus on what parents and service providers can do to help future premature children to achieve their full potential."

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and mom of two who writes about parenting and pop culture. Check out her website holleeactmanbecker.com for more, and then follow her on Instagram and Twitter.