Leicester experts contribute to House of Lords report on premature baby care

Professors Samantha Johnson (left) and Elaine Boyle

Experts from the University of Leicester have given evidence into the prevalence and impact of preterm birth as part of a report to be published by the House of Lords. 

Samantha Johnson, developmental psychologist and Professor of Child Development in the Department of Population Health Sciences, along with Elaine Boyle, Professor of Neonatal Medicine, spoke to the Preterm Birth Committee last week (11 March), appointed to consider the prevention and consequences of preterm birth.

Samantha advised the committee about the importance of developmental follow-up for preterm babies, how this is currently organised in the UK and how it might be improved. She also provided oral evidence about the impact of preterm birth on children’s educational outcomes and their need for support in school, making recommendations about how this could be improved.

Speaking afterwards she said: “I’m delighted that the House of Lords is running this timely inquiry into the impact of preterm birth and that they are paying careful attention to the long term support these children and families may need. 

“Follow-up in early childhood is such an important aspect of neonatal care. It is crucial to identify early those children that might need extra help to support their development so I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to talk to the committee about our research and about ways in which developmental follow-up, educational support and long-term care can be improved. I hope that the work of the Committee will ultimately result in improved outcomes for these vulnerable children and their families.” 

Samantha has a programme of world leading research into the long-term consequences of preterm birth on children’s health, development and wellbeing. She has expertise in assessing children’s development and was a member of the national NICE Guideline Committee which produced recommendations for the developmental follow-up of children and young people born preterm. 

She has also developed free online training for education professionals to help them better understand and support preterm youngsters in school.

Elaine gave evidence about the impact of early birth on later neurodevelopmental, health and educational outcomes. She emphasised that birth before full term should be considered as a continuum, extending from the most immature to the least immature, with babies born extremely preterm most likely to be severely affected. 

She confirmed that problems of prematurity can persist into adulthood and affect long-term health, as well as educational, occupational and relationship opportunities. Elaine advised that the smallest and least mature babies are extremely important because of the extent of their long-term problems, but represent the minority of preterm births – around 2,000 each year in the UK. 

However, she highlighted a relative lack of knowledge about outcomes for the more mature late preterm babies, who represent more than 70% of all preterm births – around 40,000 per year - and stressed the importance of developing more comprehensive data collection for all births.

“We are fortunate in the UK to have excellent data for the sickest and most immature babies who can be profoundly affected throughout their lives because of prematurity,” she said.

“However, we are now discovering that babies born even 2-6 weeks early can experience worse development, health and educational outcomes in comparison with babies born closer to their due date. Our knowledge for this much larger group is less clear. 

“I hope that this House of Lords inquiry will highlight the importance of comprehensive routine data collection for all mothers and babies so we can gain a better understanding of the effects of early birth across the whole gestational age spectrum and improve outcomes for all.” 

Elaine leads the Leicester City Football Club programme of research, which is exploring the effects of late preterm and early term birth on later health. She also works as an honorary consultant neonatologist in the Leicester neonatal service. 

She hopes her research will help to optimise clinical care and outcomes for this very large, but under-researched group of babies. 

Elaine led the development of the British Association of Perinatal Medicine guidance for the Early Postnatal Care of the Moderate-Late Preterm Infant, and is Chief Investigator for the first ever randomised controlled trial focused on late preterm and early term babies with respiratory disease.