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Study of babies born post-fertility treatment shows significant improvement over past 20 years

Children born after their parents underwent Assisted Reproduction Treatment (ART) have shown significant improvements in their health outcomes. Fewer babies are now being born pre-term, with low birth weight, and stillborn or dying within the first year of life says the largest study to date investigating the health outcomes of ART babies over time.

Dr Anna-Karina Aaris Henningsen and her colleagues, from the Fertility Clinic at the Rigshospitalet, University of Copenhagen, Denmark collated the data from over 92,000 children in Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden born between 1988 and 2007 after ART and compared them with a control group of spontaneously conceived children.

As post-fertility techniques and methods have been refined over the decades, for example the policy of only transferring one embryo at a time in these countries. By transferring only one embryo per cycle you significantly reduce the risk of multiple pregnancies, and at the same time have a profound effect on the health of the single baby. “We observed a remarkable decline in the risk of being born pre-term or very pre-term” says Dr Henningsen. “The proportion of single ART babies born with a low or very low birth weight – less than 2500g or 1500g respectively – also decreased.”

In Sweden for example, the rate for pre-term births (that is, babies born before 37 week gestation) in the period from 1988 to 1992 was 27.9%; by the time of the 2003 to 2007 period, this had dropped to 12.8%. The rates for babies who were born small for their gestational age also halved in the same period. From 1988 to 1992 it was 7.6% compared to 3.2% in the later 2003 to 2007 cohort. Equally astonishing is that stillbirths also halved from 1% to 0.5% between 1988 to 1992 and 2003 to 2007. Deaths in the first year also fell from 2.6% to 1.2% when comparing between the two groups.

Dr Henningsen and her colleagues who conducted the study believe that the findings produce some convincing conclusions. While there has been a considerable increase in the number of ART births since 1988, this has been accompanied by a significant improvement in health outcomes for these babies. In particular for singleton (as opposed to twin) births. While many factors have been credited with this improvement, from the quality and techniques of the technicians and clinicians to improvements in the culture media, “the most important reason is the dramatic decline in multiple births due to policies of choosing to transfer only one embryo at a time”, concluded Dr Henningsen.

The full study is published online in Human Reproduction, a leading reproductive medicine journal, and an in-depth write up of the study can be found here.

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