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's 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, 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 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.

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 have actually said their first word by six months of age.

However, many gifted children are actually late talkers. Not only do they not speak earlier than most children, they speak much later. In fact, some gifted children don't speak until after their second birthday. They may not even follow the typical pattern for babbling and mimicking sounds.

It is not unusual for gifted children to be intently silent until they are ready to speak and then, when they are ready, to begin speaking—often in complete sentences.

If the child was born prematurely, the parents will likely be even more apprehensive about what they see as a language delay, when what they are seeing might very well be acceptable gifted behavior.

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 integration disorder, otherwise known as dysfunction of sensory integration.

However, these are not quite the same conditions, but children who were born prematurely are often diagnosed with the disorder when what the child exhibits is a common intensity 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 like delays in speaking as well as other problems like sensory integration 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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