Prem babies become capable adults when grown up, new study confirms

New research shows that extremely prematurely born adults are transitioning to adult life similarly to their term-born peers.
22 December 2023 | Research and clinical trials | NICU

New evidence from a world-leading Victorian study following premature babies into adulthood shows that babies born before 28 weeks’ gestation are doing surprisingly well as young adults in their twenties.

In a paper published in PEDIATRICS, new data released from the Victorian Infant Collaborative Study (VICS) 1991-92 cohort reveals insights from the 25-year point of the long-term study.

The study, co-led by the Royal Women’s Hospital and Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI), shows that extremely prematurely born adults are just as likely to have completed secondary school, be in paid work, and be in a romantic relationship, compared to their peers born at full term.

Dr Lauren Pigdon, Research Officer at MCRI, analysed the new data from the unique Australian geographic cohort who were recruited at birth and followed for 25 years.

“A strength of this study is that it represents the earliest survivors of the post-surfactant era to navigate the transition into adulthood and fills a gap in knowledge,” Dr Pigdon said.

The introduction of exogenous surfactant in the early 1990s was a game changer in treating respiratory distress syndrome in newborn intensive care. Since then, there has been a dramatic rise in survival of infants born extremely preterm (younger than 28 weeks’ gestation) or with extremely low birthweight (less than 1000g).

With increased survival rates of even the tiniest babies, concerns arose that these tiny babies might have increased chances of health and developmental problems as children and adults. And that this may in turn have an impact on their transition into adult life. But is this true?

Professor Jeanie Cheong, Consultant Neonatologist at the Women’s and Co-Group Leader of the Victorian Infant Brain Studies group at MCRI.

“Our data paints a positive and encouraging picture,” Dr Pigdon said. “There were minimal group differences in self-reported general interpersonal relationships, satisfaction with different aspects of life, and current smoking behaviour.”

However, Professor Jeanie Cheong, Consultant Neonatologist at the Women’s and Co-Group Leader of the Victorian Infant Brain Studies group at MCRI, said there were some differences between the groups.

“More adults born extremely preterm had their main income source from government financial assistance and more had not yet moved out of the parental home compared with their peers born full term,” Professor Cheong said.

“Data from the past 25 years has allowed us to look at how, over time, care has improved for Victoria’s youngest and most vulnerable patients,” Professor Cheong said.

“While survival rates have gone up, we now also know that these babies have the chance to become fully functional members of our society.

“Findings from our study are relevant when counselling families after their baby is born, to put into perspective what the long-term outcomes may mean for their child.”

Meet Duane 

Duane has certainly grown up since he was born extremely premature at 26 weeks’ gestation in March 1992. He weighed only 886 grams at birth.

“I was so tiny that my father’s wedding ring could fit all the way up my arm to my shoulder,” Duane remembers.

After a happy and normal childhood, Duane completed high school and became a competitive slalom skier, trying out for the Australian National Team. While he is an experienced downhill racer avoiding major obstacles, Duane faced a few health issues and injuries in his early 20s.

Duane is now a professional skiing and snowboard instructor. He follows the snow seasons and enjoys living and working abroad. He spent a long time in Austria, where he completed a sports diploma in Innsbruck, and now speaks German fluently.

Currently, Duane is keen for his torn ACL in the knee to heal. Then he plans to hit the slopes again and has offers to work in the USA, Japan and Europe.