Babies born early, at between 37 to 39 weeks, face an increased risk of developing learning difficulties, which can include visual impairment, dyspraxia and autism.

These were the findings of a Glasgow University study which indicated that statistically such babies have a 16% higher risk than babies born at 40 weeks. It has been suggested that the results may influence the timing of elective caesarean sections, which are most commonly carried out at 39 weeks.

There will be occasions where intervention is necessary, and the risks of delaying a caesarean until full term may outweigh the risk of delivering the baby early. A caesarean may be planned to try to avoid the development of medical complications, some of which can lead to emergency delivery and a particularly distressing time for the mother, but on occasions the timing can be for non-medical and convenience reasons. We think that it is important that mothers have the opportunity of discussing all the options and taking advice so that they can reach an informed decision.  

It is well known that babies born very prematurely are at greater risk, although the outlook for such infants has improved considerably with advances in medicine. Respiratory distress syndrome is not uncommon in premature babies, although in certain circumstances, when preterm labour is suspected, steroids can be given to help mature the foetal lungs and reduce the likelihood of respiratory problems. Preterm babies have a heightened risk of problems with their eyesight, often a condition called retinopathy of prematurity, as well as with growing and temperature control. They also seem to be more likely to develop asthma. Children born later are much less likely to develop long-term problems.

For these reasons, investigating a birth injury clinical negligence claim will necessitate very careful consideration of the timing of the birth and the event causing the injury and the disability. With a preterm birth, it is not unusual to see the argument that the injuries may equally be related to prematurity, as to any alleged negligence by the medical team who managed the labour. Such investigations are usually undertaken with the assistance of eminent medical experts, often including neonatologists, paediatric neurologists and paediatric neuroradiologists.