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Premature birth and later behavioural problems

Children who are born prematurely and at a very low weight may have a high risk of certain behaviour problems and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Premature birth and later behavioural problems

Children who are born prematurely and at a very low weight may have a high risk of certain behaviour problems and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

As the survival rates of very preterm newborns have improved in recent years, studies have uncovered some of the potential long-term challenges these infants will face - including lower IQ and higher rates of behavioral problems compared with their peers born at term.

Researchers made 104 American children and teenagers (7- to 16-year-olds) take standard intelligence tests, while their parents and teachers completed a standard questionnaire on behavioural issues. Of these, 49 were born significantly prematurely (between the 24th and 33rd week of pregnancy) and they were found to have higher rates of hyperactivity and attention problems, as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety. The remaining 55 were healthy control subjects. The link between birth weight and behaviour did not fade after the researchers factored in children's age, gender, IQ and socioeconomic status.

It's possible that very low birth weight affected some children's brain development in a way that made them more vulnerable to behavioural problems. The high risk was not explained by low IQ scores. Nor was families' socioeconomic status an important factor in children's odds of behavioural or emotional issues. Instead, birth weight itself was the strongest factor.

The findings suggest that in children born prematurely, behavioural issues might be more biologically based and not easily compensated for by improvements in the environment. It does not mean that environment can't help but it might not have as strong of an impact as for children born at term and of average birth weight. In addition, while the study found that parents of premature children reported more behavioural and emotional symptoms than other parents did, most children did not have significant problems.

According to the researchers, 18 percent of preterm children had hyperactivity/inattention problems that were in the clinical range - or significant enough to warrant therapy - while 14 percent had depression or anxiety symptoms in that range.

The researchers emphasised that parents of premature children should be aware of the high risk of behavioural issues and be on the lookout for potential signs of problems. If parents notice issues of inattention, hyperactivity, depression or anxiety that are not age-appropriate and interfere with everyday life, they should consult their doctor or a local psychologist.
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