Children that undergo multiple operations under general anaesthetic before the age of 2 have a greater chance of developing learning disabilities, a US study has claimed.

Researchers at non-profit medical care, research and education centre the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, found that children who were exposed more than once to anaesthesia before their second birthday were about 3 times more likely to develop speech and language problems in later life. The study, published in the November issue of the US journal Pediatrics, was conducted with existing data of 5,357 children from the Rochester Epidemiology Project and examined the medical and educational records of 1,050 children born between 1976 and 1982 in a single school district in Rochester.  

Of the children in the cohort, 350 underwent surgeries with general anaesthesia before their second birthday and were matched with 700 children who did not. Of those who did have surgery, 286 had only one surgery and 64 had more than one. Among those children who had multiple surgeries, 36.6% developed a learning disability later in life. Of those with just one surgery, 23.6% developed a learning disability, compared to 21.2% of the children who never had surgery or anaesthesia before age 2. However, researchers saw no increase in behaviour disorders among children with multiple surgeries.

"After removing factors related to existing health issues, we found that children exposed more than once to anaesthesia and surgery prior to age 2 were approximately three times as likely to develop problems related to speech and language when compared to children who never underwent surgeries at that young age," said David Warner, MD, Mayo Clinic anaesthesiologist and co-author of the study. But lead author, Mayo Clinic paediatric anaesthesiologist Randall Flick MD, advised caution, saying that it should not put parents off having surgery for their children. "Our advice to parents considering surgery for a child under age 2 is to speak with your child's physician. "In general, this study should not alter decision-making related to surgery in young children. We do not yet have sufficient information to prompt a change in practice and want to avoid problems that may occur as a result of delaying needed procedures. For example, delaying ear surgery for children with repeated ear infections might cause hearing problems that could create learning difficulties later in school."