Unfortunately, researchers have discovered that premature and low birth-weight infants are at risk for even more lifelong problems than previously known. It has already been well established that they may suffer from developmental delays, lung problems, cerebrovascular bleeds, and retinal detachments. But more potential problems have emerged that may cause the stress of dealing with these other issues much harder.
According to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics, babies with a very low birth weight may be at much higher risk for clinical depression, ADHD, or other psychiatric conditions in adulthood, compared with those born a healthy weight, and steroid use just before birth may increase these risks further. Steroids are commonly given to mothers who are expected to deliver a premature baby before labor can be stopped in order to develop their lungs.
However, researchers discovered something else very interesting, which is good news for premature babies and their parents. The research team, led by Dr. Ryan Van Lieshout, professor of psychiatry and neurosciences in the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University in Canada, also found they are at lower risk of alcohol or substance abuse. As of yet, the reasons for this are unclear.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that around eight percent of babies in the U.S. were born with a low birth weight (less than 2,500 g) in 2013, while around 1.4 percent of babies were born a very low birth weight (less than 1,500 g). These statistics are troublesome and the incidence of low birth weight babies in the United States is higher than in many other countries, some of which are considered less developed and more impoverished.
The most common reason behind low birth weight is premature birth, with approximately seven in 10 low-birth-weight babies in the U.S. are born preterm. Other causes include fetal growth restriction and infection during pregnancy. Reasons that a mother may deliver preterm include problems with the uterus, placenta or cervix, drug or alcohol use, lack of prenatal care, pregnancy complications like pregnancy-induced hypertension or premature rupture of membranes, and occasionally accidents or unrelated-to-pregnancy conditions like maternal stroke, trauma, or illness.
Lead author of the study, Dr. Ryan Van Lieshout, said the research will "help us better predict, detect and treat mental disorders in the population of low birth weight babies."
When analyzing research, this may be considered a "robust" study, or one that carries significant weight, as the cohort has been on-going for thirty years. That's a very long time for research. The research looked at 84 adults born between 1977 and 1982 who were born weight under one kilogram (two pounds, two ounces), and compared them with 90 babies of normal birth weight.
The cohort has been monitored from birth, and the subjects are now in their 30s. Van Lieshout said in their teens, the preemies were more likely to be shy or have attention problems such as ADHD. In their 20s, the group was more likely to have anxiety disorders and depression.
The reasons why preemies are at risk for these mental health disorders, and sometimes protected from substance abuse, remain an "open question" to Van Lieshout, he said. He does not think it should be considered as a recommendation against steroid use at this time.
"These are lifesaving treatments. Without these treatments many of these infants might not have survived."