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Low Birth Weight Puts Child at Higher Risk for Psychiatric Problems


Babies born before completing the typical 40 weeks of pregnancy are often underweight. Premature infants are considered 'low birth weight' if they weigh less than two and a half kilos. At less than a kilo and a half, they're considered 'very low birth weight.' Many of these children end up with health issues related to being born so small – ranging from vision loss to breathing problems. As Rose Hoban reports, a new study found they were also at higher risk for psychiatric problems.

Michigan State University researcher Naomi Breslau and her colleagues needed to determine whether any psychiatric problems might be due to biology, not to environment. So they looked at children from two disparate communities.

"One is inner-city children, mostly minority, black, and disadvantaged," she explains. "And another community which was a middle-class, suburban, mainly white."

The study started in 1990. Breslau and her colleagues followed hundreds of children for close to 15 years. They asked mothers and teachers of the children to describe the kinds of problems these children were having. It turns out, the mothers and teachers reported that the low birth weight children did tend to have more problems than normal birth weight children.

"The children of low birth weight had lower scores and academic achievement in math and reading, and lower score on cognitive abilities," Breslau says. "We also found problems with what we call internalizing, namely depressive, anxious kids, or externalizing, namely acting out kids. But there were modest effects in both communities, equally."

The researchers did find one significant difference between the two groups. Low birth weight kids from disadvantaged communities were more hyperactive and had more difficulty paying attention than low birth weight kids in more affluent communities.

Breslau says teachers and parents need to help these low birth weight children overcome some of their psychiatric difficulties so they can do better in the classroom. Now she's studying how the ability to pay attention affects a child's success in school.

Her research is published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

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