The risk of autism may be higher for premature infants born with a low birth weight of 4.4 pounds or lower, new research suggests.
The study by University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing found a link between low birth weight and autism, with the risk five times higher for premature infants at low birth weight.
The 862 children in the study, some as small as one pound and some weighting as much as 4.4 pounds at birth, were followed for 21 years. Five percent of the children were diagnosed with autism, compared with 1 percent in the general population.
The link between low birth weight and a range of motor and cognitive problems has already been established, but this study was the first to establish children born at a low birth weight are at risk for autism spectrum disorders, according to a Penn Nursing Science, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing news release.
Penn researchers next plan to look at possible links between brain hemorrhage and autism by examining brain ultrasounds taken of these children after birth.
The study was published online and will appear in the November issue of Pediatrics.
One in 12 infants in the U.S. is born with a low birth weight, defined as less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces, according to March of Dimes. Due to advances in medical care, deaths associated with low birth weight have been greatly reduced, but a small percentage of babies wind up with mental retardation, learning problems, cerebral palsy and vision and hearing loss, the organization says.
To reduce the risk of low birth weight, March of Dimes advises:
— Have a check-up before conceiving to screen for certain health problems (diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid disease) and infections, make sure vaccinations are up-to-date, discuss medications you’re taking and discuss health habits and nutrition.
— Work with your health care provider to control chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Keeping these conditions under control reduces the chance of low birth weight and pregnancy complications.
— Take a multivitamin containing 400 micrograms of folic acid daily.
— Stop smoking before becoming pregnant and remain smoke-free throughout pregnancy.
— Get early and regular prenatal care.
— Call your health care provider immediately if you suspects you are in pre-term labor.
— If you have had a premature baby in a prior pregnancy, ask if you can benefit from treatment with the hormone progesterone.