Is There a Link Between Premature Birth and Giftedness?

Close-up of premature baby with fingers in mouth

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Having a premature baby, also known as a "preemie," can be scary and even depressing. Parents eagerly await the day when they can bring their baby home from the hospital, but when a baby is born prematurely, it has to stay in the hospital, sometimes for months, while the parents go home empty-handed. It can be a lonely, empty feeling.

Leaving baby behind in the hospital for weeks is just the beginning of the difficulties awaiting the parents of a preemie in the following months. One of these difficulties is determining if the child is developing normally. If a baby is born six weeks early, at what age should the baby sit up? Start walking? Start talking? Charts of normal developmental milestones don't seem useful because a preemie's development lags behind that of full-term babies.

However, the premature baby's development may not lag as far behind as parents think. To determine whether a preemie's development is within normal ranges, they simply need to adjust the preemie's age. That means that instead of using the baby's actual day of birth, they would use the baby's due date. For example, a baby who was born on January 3 but wasn't due until February 3 would be considered a newborn on February 3. On March 3, the baby would be considered one month old.

Evaluating the development of a preemie who is also a gifted child is even more difficult. For one thing, even though signs of giftedness can be seen in infants (a subset of premature gifted babies reach motor milestones one or two months early), those signs will probably not appear until quite some time after the baby's birth. Because preemies often experience developmental delays, the signs may be even harder to read. Even in normal circumstances, the development of gifted children may be uneven. With a child who was born prematurely, uneven development might cause parents to seek therapy or treatment when none is needed.

Asynchronous Development

Gifted children do not always follow the typical developmental path, following instead an asynchronous development pattern. Their cognitive development is almost always more advanced than one expects from children of the same age, but their physical development may not be advanced. In fact, it may actually be behind. A premature child is even more likely to have large gaps between cognitive, social and emotional, and physical development.

Children of all gestational ages have a chance to be gifted. One Florida study found that around 2% of extremely premature children (born at 23 to 24 weeks) later qualified as gifted. The odds of being gifted grew as gestational age increased. Almost 10% of full-term children in the study eventually qualified as gifted.

Gifted Milestones and Traits

Even parents of full-term gifted children have trouble determining whether their child is gifted or not. They can look at lists of gifted characteristics and if their child doesn't have all the traits listed, they think their child must not be gifted.

For example, one language milestone for children is babbling by six months. Some gifted children start babbling at four months and actually say their first words by nine months of age. However, some gifted children have co-occurring disabilities which may cause speech delays. They may not follow the typical pattern for babbling and mimicking sounds, or they may simply start the process later than normal. These disabilities are not reflective of the gifted child's intelligence, but they may prevent the child's gifts from being recognized until much later.

If the child was born prematurely, the parents will likely be even more apprehensive about what they see as a language delay. However, language delays aren't a guarantee that a child has a disability, and even if they do have a disability, it is possible they may be gifted as well. If your child has some gifted characteristics but also developmental delays, it is important to get an evaluation rather than pigeon-holing your child as "smart" or "not smart."

Extreme Sensitivities

Another issue that parents of gifted kids have to deal with is extreme or intense sensitivities. One of these sensitivities, what is called the sensual overexcitability, looks very much like sensory processing disorder, otherwise known as sensory integration dysfunction.

However, these are not quite the same conditions. Children who were born prematurely are often diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, but is also possible that your child is exhibiting a common intensity found in gifted children.

Significance for Parents of Preemies

Parents whose children were born prematurely and who exhibit any signs of giftedness, such as alertness or high cognitive functioning, are in a difficult position. Are the behaviors they see in their children signs of developmental delay or are they signs of normal gifted development? Do their children need therapy or will the children continue to develop as gifted children do, asynchronously and with intense sensitivity?

This problem exists for many parents of gifted children, but it is even more worrisome when a child is born prematurely since so many premature babies have developmental delays, such as delays in speaking, as well as other problems like sensory processing disorder. Parents should always discuss their concerns with their pediatrician, but they should also make sure that they (and their pediatricians) are aware of the typical development of gifted children.

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