Premature babies may become withdrawn adults

"Very premature and very low birth weight adults who have a socially withdrawn personality might experience difficulty dealing with social relationships with their peers, friends, and partners," says Dieter Wolke. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Adults who were born very prematurely are more likely to be socially withdrawn and display signs of autism, a new study suggests.

The findings show that the adults born before 32 weeks or with very low birth weight (less than 1.5 kgs or 3.3 lbs) scored highly for displaying a socially withdrawn personality, indicated by autistic features, neuroticism, introversion, and decreased risk-taking.

“Personality characteristics are very important because they help people to develop into adult roles and form and maintain social relationships,” says Dieter Wolke, professor of psychology at University of Warwick.

“Very premature and very low birth weight adults who have a socially withdrawn personality might experience difficulty dealing with social relationships with their peers, friends, and partners.”

Withdrawn personalities

The study, published in Archives of Disease in Childhood: Fetal & Neonatal Edition, followed children in Bavaria, Germany from birth into adulthood. Two hundred of the adults were born between 1985-86 either very premature or with very low birth weight and a similar number of term born adults provided information about personality features.

The results were not sex-specific, related to income or education, and were compared to a control group of adults who were born healthy in the same obstetric wards. The findings indicate that being born with a very low birth weight or very pre-term carries a greater risk of developing a withdrawn personality as an adult.

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Early stresses experienced in the womb and having overprotective parents are also thought to be a possible factor in effecting a withdrawn personality.

“Defining a general personality profile is important because this higher order personality factor may help to partly explain the social difficulties these individuals experience in adult roles, such as in peer and partner relationships and career, Wolke says.

“Previous studies have found they are more likely to be bullied at school and less likely to progress to university or attain well paid employment. They are also less likely to form social contacts, to maintain romantic relationships, and to have children.

“If identified early parents could be provided with techniques to foster their child’s social skills to help compensate for socially withdrawn personality characteristics.”

Source: University of Warwick