Study: Low Birth Weight May Increase Mental Health Risks

Newborn baby holding mother's handBabies born with extremely low birth weights of 1,000 grams (about 2 pounds) or less face an increased risk of mental health issues, according to a study published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin.

About 8% of all babies born in the United States are premature. Due to medical advances in recent decades, extremely premature babies have a much better chance of surviving than they did before. However, they are still at risk for complications, including stillbirth and premature death.

Prematurity: A Mental Health Risk Factor?

The study analyzed data from 41 previous studies on prematurity, following a total of 2,712 low birth weight babies and 11,127 typical birth weight babies. The study spanned 12 countries and 26 years.

Premature babies’ increased risk of mental health conditions began in childhood and continued well into adulthood. Almost every study found an increased risk for attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) during childhood and adolescence. Teenagers were more likely to have social difficulties, and adults experienced higher rates of depression, anxiety, and shyness.

The increase in mental health issues among premature babies persisted even when researchers controlled for physical health issues such as blindness or cerebral palsy.

Premature birth has risen to unprecedented highs, partially due to technological improvements in medical care that allow premature babies to survive. Risk factors for premature birth include:

  • A prior history of premature delivery
  • Less than six months between a birth and new pregnancy
  • Diabetes
  • Maternal age younger than 18 or older than 35
  • Smoking, drinking alcohol, or use of illicit drugs
  • Abuse such as intimate partner violence, rape, sexual assault, or psychological abuse
  • Use of in vitro fertilization
  • Carrying multiples such as twins or triplets
  • Placenta previa, which happens when the placenta covers the cervix opening

Premature Babies’ Mental Health

Several other studies have also linked small birth size to mental health issues. One previous study found premature babies were more likely to develop ADHD, depression, tics, and some other mental health diagnoses in adolescence.

Another recent study found “kangaroo care,” which includes skin-to-skin contact, could improve outcomes in premature babies. Babies who received kangaroo care had lower mortality rates, better mental health, larger brains, and higher Intelligence Quotients (IQ).


  1. Mathewson, K. J., Chow, C. H., Dobson, K. G., Pope, E. I., Schmidt, L. A., & Lieshout, R. J. (2017). Mental health of extremely low birth weight survivors: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. doi:10.1037/bul0000091
  2. What are the factors for preterm labor and birth? (n.d.). Retrieved from

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  • tyner

    March 7th, 2017 at 2:23 PM

    My daughter was five weeks early and thankfully she has been fine thus far. She has never had any real physical problems as a result nor has she had any real learning difficulties as a result of her early delivery. We are so thankful.

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