Learning Disabilities in Premature Babies

Diagnosing and Treating Learning Disabilities in Children Born Prematurely

Picture of a frustrated boy leaning on school books
Frustration in school can signal a learning disability. Image copyright Gabe Palmer / Getty Images

Once premature babies leave the NICU and settle into life at home, parents can relax knowing that their NICU days are behind them. Most ex-preemies will grow up without any serious long-term effects from their premature birth. By the time they blow out the candles on their second birthday, family and friends may have forgotten that they were born early in the first place.

As they grow and progress in school, some children who were born early may show subtle signs that their prematurity is affecting them after all.

Learning disabilities are common in preemies, and as many as 50% of babies weighing less than 3 lb, 4 oz at birth will have trouble in school by the time they reach 3rd grade.

What Are Learning Disabilities?

A learning disability is a problem learning in one specific area. Children who have learning disabilities have normal intelligence and generally do well in other areas in school, but have problems in a specific subject. Common learning disabilities include trouble with:

  • Reading or decoding words
  • Handwriting
  • Math concepts or calculation
  • Verbal expression
  • Processing information

Although learning disabilities are specific, they can eventually cause trouble in more than one subject. For example, a child with a reading disability may not be able to read her science textbook well, causing poor grades in science.

It's important to remember that learning disabilities are only one issue that can cause children to have trouble in school.

Attention problems, emotional problems, and intellectual disabilities can also affect a child's school performance.

Signs of a Learning Disability

Recognizing learning disabilities is important because treatment works best when it's started early. Keep track of your child's progress in school by checking schoolwork and holding regular parent-teacher conferences.

Trouble with the following skills may be related to a learning disability:

  • Reading aloud
  • Rhyming
  • Writing neatly or holding a pencil
  • Retelling a story
  • Understanding what they've read
  • Doing basic math equations
  • Reading numbers
  • Following directions

Children who are struggling in school may also have behavior problems at school or may seem frustrated by schoolwork that seems easy to parents. A child who complains that they "hate school" may really be having trouble with their schoolwork.

I Think My Child Has a Learning Disability - Now What?

If you think your child has a learning disability, then your fist step is to talk to the teacher, guidance counselor, or school administration about your concerns. The school will set up an evaluation process to test for learning disabilities and other school problems. This process is completely free for parents.

If the school's tests show that your child does have a learning disability, then you will meet with the school to develop an individualized education program, or IEP.

Federal law states that schools must accommodate children with learning disabilities, and the IEP will identify goals for your child and what the school will do to help your child meet them.

Many parents are happy with their child's test results and are grateful for the educational support that the IEP outlines. If you disagree with the test results, you are entitled to have your child independently evaluated. You may have to pay for an independent evaluation, but the school is required to give you information about how to obtain one.

What is Special Education Like for Learning Disabilities?

In the past, children with learning disabilities or other problems in school were often placed together in a special education classroom. In modern schools, special education has changed drastically. Children with special education services are placed in the regular classroom as much as possible, but may be pulled out for individual or small group instruction as needed. Specific interventions may also be used, including:

  • Having tests read aloud
  • Providing shorter assignments
  • Giving more time for tests or homework
  • Specialized seating in the classroom
  • Tape recorded lectures
  • Use of shared note-taking
  • Allowing typed assignments
  • Different assignment/test formats


Frisk, V. (2009) "Overview of Learning and Education in the Premature Baby." http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/En/ResourceCentres/PrematureBabies/LookingAhead/OverviewofLearningandEducationinthePrematureBaby/Pages/default.aspx

Hutchinson, E., De Luca, C., Doyle, L., Roberts, G., and Anderson, P. "School-age Outcomes of Extremely Preterm or Extremely Low Birth Weight Children." Pediatrics. April 2013: 131, e103 - e1061.

National Dissemination Center for Children With Disabilities. http://nichcy.org

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