Can premature birth affect us later on?

When you stop and take a moment to think about it, being pulled (screaming) from a completely adequate, self contained cosy environment, into the cold harsh reality of a bright, noisy and clinical hospital room is harsh enough, never mind if our bodies are no where near fully developed enough to cope with it.

I myself was born 13 weeks premature (thats 3 months!) with a weight of just 2lbs – I say ‘born’ but in truth it was more yanked out in a panic. My skin was transparent, my ears thin like tracing paper with many other area’s underdeveloped – I’ll spare detail but they did a good job knowing my gender. All in all I looked like an alien form of baby bird. The pics are not attractive, believe me.

For weeks my mother could only look at me through the glass of my little incubator, no cuddles, no breastfeeding. Nothing comforting, just lots of needles and tubes. I still have pin prick holes in my wrists (26 years later) from the wires running in and out. Thank custard we have no recollection of birth.

Midwives who were working at the hospital at the time I was born tend to ‘recognise’ me as they say “you can always tell a little prematurer, you’s all have a wee look about ya” and “Ya know, if you were male you might not have survived – wee girls are fighters ya see”. This has always stuck with me and I find myself constantly wondering if its true and more-so can the cruelness of prematurity have affected me through life development and if so… how?

Almost 8% of live births are born preterm and, with 40 weeks being considered the usual birth term, landing in at 27 weeks I was defined as ‘extremely preterm’. An EPIcure study in 1995 on babies born before 27 weeks of gestation (in the UK and Ireland) found that at age 6, “34 percent had mild disability (defined as low IQ/cognitive score, squint or refractive error, requiring glasses). When the same children were reassessed in middle childhood (aged 11 years), the investigators found that 45 percent had serious cognitive impairment. They had significantly lower scores for cognitive ability, reading and mathematics and 13 percent attended special schools. 57 percent of those in mainstream schools had special educational needs.”

The longest running U.S. study conducted by University of Rhode Island Professor of Nursing Mary C. Sullivan on premature children who are now 25 years old provides insight into the causes of such struggles. Her latest work states that the stress response of pre-term infants (due to a very low birth weight, repeated blood draws, surgery and breathing issues) produces higher levels of the hormone cortisol, which is essential for regulating metabolism, immune response, vascular tone and overall homoeostasis. She highlights the effects this has had on children born prematurely compared to those who were full term and as with the EPIcure study children were found to struggle in school, especially in mathematics, some difficulties with social interaction (children having fewer friends) and with co-0rdination (which may be related to brain development and effects of neonatal intensive care).

Her study goes on to show how the environment we grow in can help negate such struggles. It’s highlights that children who were born pre-term have a “persistent drive to succeed” and children whose carers provided a nurturing environment and who were “strong advocates for them in school performed better academically, socially and physically. These are called protective factors and they work to counter the effects of pre-term birth.” Sullivan believes “These findings are important for parents, nurses in the neo-natal intensive care units, teachers and staff in the schools, disability services offices in colleges and primary care providers. By identifying the issues pre-term babies face in childhood, adolescence and through adulthood, we can all be better prepared to take steps to mitigate their effects.”

Like many I very much struggled with math etc at school but I also had a very supportive mother to the point I quite literally was wrapped in cotton wool (in the form of heavily padded coats and soft fleece lined everything). Bigger kids in the street couldn’t say boo to me or my mum was out after them ready to fight my battle. Famous examples of prematurity include Sir Winston Churchill, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. With their academic background and success rates their mums must have resembled Rocky Balboa.

In terms of the nurse saying we all have a “little look about us” I have found no such definitive results. My own theory is that you can tell by the eyes. I have big eyes that never changed colour from the dark blue grey birth colour and I always say I look a bit like a gammy Pokémon (slight exaggeration but I very much appreciate my eye-liner). When I look at photo’s of Einstein or Anna Pavlova (famous ballerina back in the day, also premature) I do think the eyes resemble mine. Big eyes, Heavy round top eyelid. I don’t know whether he was a premmie or not, but I’d bet you Nicholas Lyndhurst is a prime example! I’ve been called ‘Dave’ a few times in my life thanks to his role in Only Fools and Horses. That was fun at 14. Us Pokémon have to stick together.

I know I’ve not had it easy but I do not think I am still directly affected by it all… just don’t ask me what’s 8 x 7.

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