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You’ll have to forgive me but I’m having a bit of a seethe over a story I’ve just seen on today’s Daily Mail website (and I dare say it will pop up in lots of other places too). The headline goes: “Risk for babies born ONE WEEK early: Serious health problems more likely, warn British researchers.” Note their capitals.

Talk about whipping up a serious case of riskfactorphobia. I’d hate to be a pregnant woman reading that right now.

So here’s what the story says. Professor Jill Pell, a public health expert at Glasgow University has been looking into the problem of special educational needs in children – apparently this covers a range of learning disabilities including ADHD, dyslexia and autism, as well as physical things like deafness and poor eyesight.

Professor Pell, who’s also a spokesperson for the baby charity Tommy’s, studied school and hospital records of 407,503 Scottish children – quite a task, I imagine – and has published her findings in the journal PLoS Medicine (PLoS being the Public Library of Science). So what she found was that 17,784 of the 407,503 children had developed special educational needs – that’s 4.9 percent of all the children. But then, when she looked at when they were born (that is, at how many weeks – 40 weeks being what’s referred to as full term), she found there was an increased risk among the children who had been born before 40 weeks.

As you might assume – though I’m not sure why – the children who had been born the earliest had the biggest chance of developing special educational needs (let’s call it SEN, it saves me typing the whole thing out). Babies born between 24-27 weeks – which is pretty premature, you have to admit – were found to be seven times more likely to develop SEN than those born at full term (ie. 40 weeks). I won’t go into all the details, you can read the story yourself, but it ends up with the statistic that babies born at 39 weeks (either naturally or via c-section) are nine percent more likely to develop SEN. Thirty-nine weeks, that’s ONE WEEK early then (to quote the Mail headline).

Hmm. Nine percent. So bite me for not being a statistician, but that doesn’t sound particularly significant to me. Of course it all depends on what the risk is to start with, as you probably know. And fair play to the Mail, they have included that information – and I quote “some 4.7 percent of the babies born at 39 weeks had special needs, compared with 4.4 of those who went to term”.

Now I’m no maths expert, but even I can work out that the extra amount of risk for babies born at 39 weeks in terms of developing SEN is TINY (er, my capitals, sorry).

Now the story goes on to state that 22 percent of babies in England and Wales are born at 39 weeks, which is when most planned caesarians are carried out (apparently there are risks to both mother and baby involved in waiting that extra week). Most c-sections are performed for medical reasons, but some are carried out because women request them. Only seven percent, mind you, are elective caesarians – again, is it me, or does that figure not sound particularly significant?

To be fair, Professor Pell herself is reported to have claimed that women who are having elective caesarians shouldn’t panic about their babies developing SEN because the increased risk is very low. Yes, we know – 4.7 percent compared with 4.4 percent. Can I state that any more clearly?

Well it’s an interesting story, sure enough, but one that’s going to scare the bejesus out of some poor mums-to-be who, no doubt, will now blame themselves for all eternity  if their babies develop any kind of problem as they’re growing up if they were born a minute too early. I just think it’s a completely unnecessary case of scare-mongering. But don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself – just make sure you get to the bottom of the story and to the facts, don’t merely take in the headlines.

Oh, and read the comments at the bottom of the story too. They’re fascinating. Here’s a snippet of one of my favourites: “I suggest that Tommy’s take another £250,000 of public money and study the effects of astronaut’s farts in space and the effects these wonderful gases have on Mars.”

Actually, I couldn’t have put it better myself.