Very preterm babies at higher risk of some mental health disorders

Babies born very preterm or with a very low body weight have a higher chance of developing mental health issues such as autism, ADHD or anxiety, according to new research.

An international team of researchers, led by Monash University Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health Professor of Paediatric Neuropsychology Peter Anderson, found that people who were born very preterm – before 32 weeks – or with a very low body weight – below 1.5kg – were significantly more likely to meet the criteria for a range of mental health disorders.

The study, published in EClinical Medicine, found that people who were born very preterm were 10 times more likely to meet the clinical criteria for autism spectrum disorder, five times more likely with ADHD and twice as likely with anxiety disorder.

“This study is the most comprehensive to date to examine the odds of those born very preterm developing psychiatric disorders, with a specific focus on autism, ADHD, anxiety and mood disorders,” Professor Anderson said.

“While the rate of specific psychiatric disorders is higher, it is important to stress that the vast majority of individuals born very preterm do not develop these conditions.”

“We pooled individual, participant-level data from 10 international groups to evaluate the odds of psychiatric disorders for people who were born very preterm or with a very low body weight compared to those born at term and with normal body weight.

“The next step is to understand the reasons behind this increase in autism, ADHD and anxiety disorders in individuals born very preterm.

"This information is needed to target individuals and families who are at highest-risk, improving early detection and leading to earlier treatment.

“Currently, surveillance programs for individuals born very preterm rarely continue beyond early childhood, and predominantly focus on cognitive and motor outcomes. This research suggests that monitoring mental health across development in these high-risk individuals should be considered.”