Mathematical Learning Difficulties | Action Medical Research | Children's Charity

Premature birth: tackling learning difficulties in mathematics

This research was completed on 31 July 2013

Published on 29 October 2010

Over 10,000 babies are born very prematurely, more than eight weeks early, each year in the UK.1,2 Sadly, many go on to develop learning disabilities. Difficulties with mathematics are especially common. A maths disability can have far-reaching consequences throughout life – children can have special educational needs at school and reduced employment opportunities later on. Researchers are investigating the nature and causes of premature children’s difficulties with maths, with the longer term aim of finding ways to boost their performance.


What's the problem and who does it affect?

When nothing adds up

Around 10,000 babies are born very prematurely, before 32 weeks of pregnancy, each year in the UK.1,2 Their early birth can have a detrimental effect on the way the brain develops.

Babies who are born very early are at high risk of developing learning disabilities during childhood. This can have a profound effect on their performance at school. When compared with children born at full term, children born very early are much more likely to have special educational needs and their academic achievement is poorer.

The educational disadvantage persists beyond childhood. Adults who were born very prematurely are less likely to attend university and are likely to earn less than peers who were born at term.

Difficulties with mathematics are especially common. These difficulties seem to be very particular, and cannot be accounted for simply by a lower IQ, for example. They can have profound implications for a person’s life chances, having a greater impact on employment opportunities than poor reading skills, for example.

However, the nature and causes of children’s difficulties with maths remain poorly understood. A greater understanding is urgently needed, so we can help children with learning disabilities overcome their disadvantage.

What is the project trying to achieve?

Adding to the knowledge base

There is a lack of studies investigating the nature and origins of maths difficulties in children who were born very prematurely. The researchers are helping to put that right.

Around 160 children, who are eight to ten years old, are taking part in a study. The children come from the north London and Nottingham areas. Eighty of the children were born very prematurely, more than eight weeks early; each is being studied along with a classmate who was born at term.

A psychologist, who has no knowledge of which children were born early, is assessing each pair of children in school:

  • to assess the children’s level of attainment in maths
  • to clarify exactly what sort of problems the children can have with maths, by identifying specific areas of weakness in their understanding and abilities – their understanding of numbers and of strategies used when adding and dividing, for example
  • to identify differences in the children’s general abilities, such as attention and memory skills, which could underlie maths disabilities.

What are the researchers' credentials?

Project LeaderDr S Johnson PhD CPsychol
Project team
  • Dr Camilla Gilmore DPhil CPsychol
  • Dr Lucy Cragg DPhil CPsychol, Professor Neil Marlow DM FMedSci
LocationDepartment of Health Sciences, University of Leicester and Department of Academic Neonatology, Institute for Women's Health, University College London
Duration2 years
Grant awarded29 July 2010
Start date1 August 2011
End date31 July 2013
Grant amount£156,430.00
Grant codeSP4575, GN1780

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An experienced team of psychologists and doctors are collaborating on this project. The project leader, Dr Samantha Johnson, is a research psychologist with expertise in the long-term development of babies who are born very prematurely.

Dr Johnson has a long-standing collaboration with another member of the project team, Professor Neil Marlow, a specialist in neonatology – the branch of medicine concerned with the care, development and diseases of newborn babies. Both researchers have been instrumental in designing and running the EPICure studies – two large investigations into how babies who were born extremely early in the UK and Ireland, at less than 26 weeks of gestation, fare over the long term. So far, the studies have followed children who were born in 1995 and 2006.

Dr Camilla Gilmore is a developmental psychologist with expertise in how children’s skills in maths develop, in the processes in the brain that underlie that development, and in learning difficulties in maths. Dr Lucy Cragg is another developmental psychologist, with expertise in how brain function develops during the primary school years, particularly in terms of general functions that control and regulate other brain processes.

Who stands to benefit from this research and how?

Overcoming maths disabilities

The researchers aim to help children who have developed difficulties with maths after being born very prematurely, more than eight weeks early. It is possible their work could help other children with maths difficulties too.

The team hopes to boost our understanding of exactly what sort of problems children who were born very early can have with maths. They also hope to learn more about the root causes of the children’s maths disabilities.

Longer term, the researchers hope to use the knowledge they gain to find ways to improve the children’s skills in maths. This is likely to have knock-on effects in other subjects.

The researchers' work could eventually mean parents and teachers have better information about each child’s particular disability, how it might affect them in the future, and what sort of special educational support might suit them best.

The proportion of babies who are born prematurely has risen in industrialised countries, as has the babies' chances of surviving.3 This is particularly true for babies who are born extremely early. Between 1995 and 2006, for example, there was a 30% increase in the number of extremely premature births in the UK.4,5 Finding a way to overcome their all too common difficulties with maths could bring lifelong benefits – improving their attainment at school, boosting their prospects of going to university and improving their employment opportunities.


  1. The information centre. NHS Maternity Statistics 2008-9.
  2. Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) Online. Maternity Data. Gestation. Table 27: Deliveries by length of gestation and method of onset of labour. 2008-9.
  3. Goldenberg RL et al. Epidemiology and causes of preterm birth. The Lancet 2008; 371:75-84.
  4. Costeloe K, Hennessy E, Myles J, Draper E. Survival and early morbidity of extremely preterm babies in England: Changes since 1995. Archives of Disease in Childhood 2008; 93:A33.
  5. EPICure. Population based studies of survival and later health status in extremely premature infants.
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