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Some of World's Tiniest Preemies Are Growing Up Healthy

Two of the Smallest Surviving Infants Develop Normally, but Height and Weight Lag a Bit
By Cari Nierenberg
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

World's tiniest preemie at birth and at 22Dec. 12, 2011 -- Against heavy odds, the world's tiniest and the fourth-smallest surviving infants have had normal childhood development, a new study shows, although the girls’ heights and weights still lag behind other kids the same age.

Little information is available to doctors and parents on how extremely low-birth-weight babies develop and grow as toddlers, school-age children, or into young adulthood. So a report like this offers a rare glimpse at the long-term health and growth of two of the world's teeniest premature babies as they get older.

Rumaisa Rahman, a girl who holds the Guinness Book of World Records title of "World's Smallest Surviving Baby," is at her five-year follow-up doctor's visit.

Born at just 26 weeks after her mother had severe preeclampsia, a serious condition involving high blood pressure and other abnormalities during pregnancy, Rumaisa was a twin. She weighed 9.2 ounces. She was roughly 9 inches long. Rumaisa spent 142 days in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit.

Madeline Mann is now a 22-year-old college senior. She was born at nearly 27 weeks into the pregnancy, also to a mother who had preeclampsia. She weighed roughly 9.9 ounces and was also about 9 inches long. Madeline was hospitalized for 122 days as a newborn before going home. 

Her case is the first 20-year follow-up for one of the world's smallest surviving infants reported in the medical literature.

Few babies born at birth weights of less than 14 ounces survive, so cases such as these are very rare. But the numbers of these "micro-preemies" who survive are on the rise.

The research appears in the Dec. 12 issue of Pediatrics.

Not Typical Outcomes

Both girls, who were born at the same Illinois hospital, showed normal language skills and hit normal milestones for walking and toilet training. Rumaisa's movement skills -- writing, grasping for toys, and getting dressed -- are mildly delayed, while Madeline's are described as normal.

Both girls remain small for their age for weight and height. Rumaisa is in first grade with an individualized education plan.

At 20, Madeline stood 4 feet, 7 inches and weighed about 65 pounds. Her growth has been consistently far below other girls her age. 

"We tell parents of babies born this small not to expect their children to be super tall," says researcher Jonathan Muraskas, MD.

Even so, he credits three main reasons for the girls’ relatively normal development. The first, says Muraskas, is that number of weeks of the pregnancy is much more important than birth weight for a child's growth and brain development.  

A second is that female preemies do better than males. "But we don't know why," says Muraskas, a professor of neonatal and perinatal medicine at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill.

And a third reason is that both mothers were given steroids before birth. These medications help the baby's lungs and brains mature faster and lower the risk of bleeding in the brain.

Muraskas points out that the two girls’ outcomes are not typical. Many micro-preemies either do not survive or grow up with disabilities from conditions such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, and blindness.

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