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Can pregnancy measurements help predict which babies are most at risk of learning difficulties?

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More than one million children in England require extra support at school due to special education needs[1]. We know that a baby’s growth and development in the womb has a profound influence on their health and development later in life, including how well they do at school. Dr Catherine Aiken is aiming to use detailed measurements collected during pregnancy, such as growth scans, to predict which babies are more likely to experience problems affecting their brain development. Identifying babies at high risk of poorer educational outcomes could help ensure they receive early interventions to support their learning – helping them achieve their full potential.

How are children’s lives affected now?

Research tells us that a baby’s time in the womb has a crucial influence in shaping their later health and development, including how well they do at school. For example, evidence shows that children who are born small for their gestational age are more likely to have poorer educational outcomes.

“Babies who are low birth weight are likely to do less well at school than children who were average weight,” says Dr Aiken.

Although early interventions to support a child’s learning can help give them the best possible chance of educational success, we do not currently understand enough about the impact of being born small on a child’s brain development to know exactly who may need this extra help.

“Identifying which babies are most likely to experience challenges that impact on their education would help ensure they receive the support they need both at home and at school,” says Dr Aiken.

How could this research help?

“We aim to find new ways of using measurements collected during pregnancy to help predict a child’s likelihood of developmental delay and poorer educational outcomes,” says Dr Aiken.

The team will study detailed data, such as ultrasound scans, collected from over 4,000 expectant mothers who took part in the Pregnancy Outcome Prediction Study. As their children are now at primary school, information is becoming available about their educational needs and achievements.

“By linking current educational outcomes with pregnancy data, we hope to pinpoint specific growth-related measurements taken before birth that can help predict a baby’s likelihood of future learning difficulties,” says Dr Aiken.

The researchers will focus on around 400 children in the study who were born small for their gestational age.

“If we can assess a baby’s chances of future developmental delay, this would means steps can be taken to ensure children at increased risk are given the best possible chance of success,” says Dr Aiken.

References

Department for Education, Special Education needs in England: January 2018: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/729208/SEN_2018_Text.pdf

Project Leader Dr Catherine Aiken, MBBChir MA PhD MRCP MRCOG
Location University Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Cambridge
Project Team Dr Hilary S Wong, MBChB PhD MRCPCH.
Professor Gordon Smith, MD PhD DSc FRCOG FMedSci.
Other Locations University Department of Paediatrics, University of Cambridge
Grant Awarded
Grant Amount £138,073
Start Date TBC
End Date TBC
Duration 36 months
Grant Code (GN number) GN2788

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