Research shows that preterm babies are at much greater risk of having general cognitive and math difficulties.

Dr. Dieter Wolke, a researcher at the University of Warwick and co-author of the new paper, said that some preterm babies are also more likely to develop dyscalculia, a learning disorder characterized by a math comprehension significantly lower than would be expected from their intelligence. "Mathematic impairment is not the same as dyscalculia,” he explained. “A child with both low IQ and low mathematic abilities can have general mathematic impairment without suffering from dyscalculia.”

"What this study has shown is that preterm children are not at an increased risk of having dyscalculia, but their risk may be increased if they were born small for gestational age,” he added.

Published in the Journal of Pediatrics, the study examined data from 922 children ages 7 to 9. Wolke and colleagues found that children born significantly ahead of term, or before the 32nd week of pregnancy, had a 39.4 percent chance of having general mathematical impairment. That’s more than twice the risk of children carried to term, for whom the figure was 14.9 percent.

"In general, preterm and small-for-gestational-age children often have mathematic problems,” Dr. Julia Jaekel, study co-author from the Ruhr-University Bochum, said in a press release. “And, even if they are not diagnosed with dyscalculia, they may need special help in school to not be left behind academically.”

Dyscalculia and Beyond

Today, about 2.4 million U.S. students are diagnosed with some type of learning disability. Although improved resources have helped bring down the number of diagnoses, conditions like dyslexia and dyscalculia still pose a significant burden on students, with one in five sufferers dropping out of high school. Similarly, only 10 percent of people with learning disabilities enroll in a four-year college within two years of graduation compared to 28 percent of the general public.

While it is not clear why some premature babies develop these problems, knowledge of the elevated risk may help create a better learning environment in schools. "Teachers should be aware of these children's problems and need to work on ways of math instruction that help preterm children deal with the high cognitive workload and integration of information required for mathematic tasks in school,” Wolke told reporters.

Source: Jaekel J, Wolke D. Preterm Birth and Dyscalculia. Journal of Pediatrics. 2014.