Children born four to six weeks early are more likely than full-term babies to suffer hardship later in life, a new study suggests. Finnish researchers at the University of Helsinki have determined that late-term preemies exhibit a higher rate of socioeconomic disadvantages throughout their lives. However, many experts are questioning the relevance and purpose of the findings.

To assess the socioeconomic impact of late-term premature birth, lead researcher Katri Raikkonen and colleagues studied the lives of 9,000 Finnish men and women born between 1934 and 1944. By tracing their social status through the decades that followed, the researchers found that the examined subjects were more likely to work blue-collar jobs, make less money, and forego higher education. They were also more likely to be downwardly mobile and belong to the lowest third of society by income, HealthDay reported.

"This suggests that the 10 million people born late-preterm each year may be at risk for suffering from lifetime socioeconomic disadvantage," the researchers concluded in their study.

While prevailing research generally supports the physiological disadvantages of premature birth, many pediatricians and obstetricians question the point of the Finnish research team’s findings. Jeff Ecker, director of obstetrical clinical research and quality assurance at the Massachusetts General Hospital, criticized the study’s portrayal of premature birth as a consequence of medical practice or choice.

"I hope no one is undertaking late-preterm births by choice. They are not elective things," he said, speaking to HealthDay. "Any efforts to avoid late-preterm births have to be balanced against the consequences to the mother's health or the baby's health. I don't think they are as easily avoided as some might wish or imagine."

Similarly, other experts found the methodology and sample group problematic. The surveyed preemies were all born in World War II-era Scandinavia, about five years after the Finnish Winter War. This was a time of severely limited resources, even in peaceful regions.

"While it's true that late-preterm babies born today have perceptible development differences compared with full-term babies, the people involved in this study were born during a time when there was a 40 percent mortality rate for premature deliveries," said Andrew Adesman of Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York. “Here we are nearly 70 to 80 years later. The clinical relevance is questionable, and I think an article like this has the potential to unduly alarm parents who have a child born one to three weeks earlier than is expected for a full-term infant."