To answer the question of whether babies born too early or who weigh too little at birth develop anxiety and mood disorders later in life, Julia Jaekel, assistant professor of child and family studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Dieter Wolke, professor of psychology at the University of Warwick, co-authored a study that involved nearly 400 individuals from birth to adulthood.
Although previous studies have reported risks for anxiety and mood disorders in very pre-term and very low birth-weight babies, they were based on small samples and did not include repeated assessments for over 20 years. This new study is the first investigation of anxiety and mood disorders in childhood and adulthood using clinical diagnoses in a large population study of very pre-term and very low birth-weight individuals as compared to individuals born at term.
Half of the participants had been born before 32 weeks gestation or at a very low birth weight, and the other half had been born at term and normal birth weight. The researchers assessed each participant when they were 6, 8 and 26 years old using detailed clinical interviews of psychiatric disorders.
They found that at age 6, children were not at an increased risk of any anxiety or mood disorders, but by age 8, after they had entered school, more children had an anxiety disorder. When the participants reached age 26, a tendency to have more mood disorders like depression was found but the findings were not meaningfully different between the two groups.
The researchers also found that having a supportive, romantic partner is an important factor for good mental health because it helps protect from developing anxiety or depression. Being the largest study yet ever done in this field, it provides compelling and reassuring evidence that very pre-term birth as well as very low birth weight is not associated with an increased risk of mood and anxiety disorders.