Low Birth Weight Babies at Higher Risk for Mental Health Problems Later in Life


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An analysis of nearly 30 years of research published by the American Psychological Association in February, suggests that babies born with extremely low birth weight are not only at risk for physical problems but are also more likely to experience mental health problems later in life.

Preterm births have increased dramatically over the last two decades and now make up about 8 percent of infants born in the U.S. and Canada. Babies born at an extremely low birth weight (less than 1,000 grams or just over 2 pounds) have a greater chance of surviving than ever before.

The data comes from 41 studies following 2,712 individuals who were born with an extremely low birth weight and 11,127 who were born with a normal birth weight. The studies took place over a 26-year period (1990-2016) in 12 countries, including the U.S. and Canada.

Extremely low birth weight babies were found to be at an increased risk for particular mental health problems, beginning in childhood and extending at least into their 30s. Findings included:

  • As children, they were significantly more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in almost every study included in the review.
  • Adolescents were also at greater risk for ADHD and social problems.
  • Adults born with extremely low birth weight reported significantly higher levels of anxiety, depression and shyness, as well as significantly lower levels of social functioning.

Researchers from McMaster University published their findings in the Feb. 13, 2017 issue of Psychological Bulletin. They believe these findings may stem from biological responses of the infant to difficult prenatal conditions and postnatal stresses following early birth.


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