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Study reveals premature babies may adopt behavioral problems later in life

May 31, 2001

Behavioral problems developed by children later in life might be attributed to their low birth weight, according to a new study.

Nigel Paneth, chairman of the Department of Epidemiology, co-authored an international study published in the May 26 issue of The Lancet, a medical journal. The study looked at more than 400 extremely low birth weight (ELBW) children in the United States, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands.

ELBW children are those who weigh less than 2 pounds at birth.

Paneth and his associates assembled in 1996. They studied large samples of premature babies and observed their progress as they grew older.

“What we pulled together was basically the early school years,” Paneth said of the behaviors studied.

A child behavior checklist was used for each child, and the same checklist was used in all four countries.

Paneth said some characteristics stood out, such as abnormal behavior, hyperactivity, “expressing odd thoughts to their parents and social disorder.”

The study uncovered these behaviors in all four countries. Paneth said the group of researchers was surprised because the children shared these characteristics despite cultural differences.

The group now plans on looking at what the children experience after birth.

“We are going to analyze the data to see what factors are associated with this behavior,” Paneth said.

Gerald Osborn, associate chairman of the Department of Psychiatry, said he is convinced by the data. Osborn said the care mothers get while pregnant needs to improve to help stop premature births.

“The more premature an infant is, the more disadvantaged they are in broad areas,” Osborn said.

Joseph Marshall, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, said extremely low birth weight can happen if the mother develops infections, but the cause is largely unknown.

“Most of the time when a woman goes into premature labor, we don’t know what causes it,” he said.

Marshall said Paneth’s study focuses on ELBW, not low birth weight (5 pounds). One-third of the children born with a low weight just haven’t grown enough, he said. The other two-thirds are children born too early. These children are the extreme cases of low birth weight.

A child is usually born with a low birth weight because of birth defects or substance abuse by the mother, Marshall said.

The study’s findings intrigued Marshall by its international focus.

“(It’s) interesting because they studied patients from different countries and it shows some common characteristics that are not specific to a certain country,” he said.

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