Babies With Low Birth Weight Are at Greater Risk for Developing Mental Health Problems

New research suggests parents should keep an eye on their children's mental health — especially if they were born prematurely.

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Listen up, preemie parents: It might be time to check in with your children about their mental health, because according to new research from the American Psychological Association, babies born at a low birth weight are at a greater risk of developing mental health problems later in life.

In the February 2017 review of studies, McMaster University researchers analyzed data from 41 studies, which followed more than 2,700 extremely low weight babies (aka preemies) and more than 11,100 normal-weight babies from 12 countries over the course of 26 years. "Extremely low weight" was defined as weighing approximately 2 pounds or less.

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The researchers found that babies born at an extremely low birth weight were more likely to develop certain mental health problems, beginning with an increased risk of ADHD in later childhood and adolescence and continuing on with an increased risk of anxiety and depression in adulthood.

It's worth noting that the number of premature births in the United States recently increased for the first time in eight years, according to November 2016 research from the March of Dimes. And with the increasingly advanced medical care available in neonatal intensive care units, these teeny-tiny preemies are more likely to survive than ever before.

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That's great news, of course, but as more and more extremely low birth-weight survivors are born, parents and health providers alike need to be prepared to help them manage the mental and physical health issues they may face. In a press release, the researchers suggested that the pre- and postnatal stresses that preemies experience might explain their increased risk for mental health problems — just as they explain the physical complications (such as breathing problems and vision loss) that premature babies so often experience.

"It is important that families and health care providers be aware of the potential for early-emerging mental health problems in extremely low birth-weight survivors, and that some of these individuals may not grow out of these problems as they get older," lead study author Karen Mathewson, PhD, said in a press release. "It is essential that appropriate treatment be made available to those who require it as early in life as possible."

In the end, it's important to remember that even though the risk of developing mental health problems increases in low birth-weight babies, most low birth-weight babies will not develop a mental disorder. Even still, it is wise for all parents to keep an eye on their children's mental health as they age.

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