Babies born very prematurely are more likely to have socially withdrawn personalities as adults, indicated by traits of autism, decreased risk taking, and higher levels of neuroticism and introversion, according to a new study at the University of Warwick in Germany.
“Personality characteristics are very important because they help people to develop into adult roles and form and maintain social relationships. Very premature and very low birth weight adults who have a socially withdrawn personality might experience difficulty dealing with social relationships with their peers, friends, and partners,” said study leader Professor Dieter Wolke from the department of psychology and Warwick Medical School.
The researchers followed 200 adults born between 1985-86 who were born either very prematurely (before 32 weeks) or with very low birth weight (less than 3.3 lbs).
Their data was compared to a control group of adults who were born healthy in the same obstetric wards. The findings indicate that being born very prematurely or with a very low birth weight carries a greater risk of developing a withdrawn personality as an adult.
The new research differs from previous studies which featured a variety of findings; some of the studies reported higher introversion or higher neuroticism while others found increased levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness.
Wolke attributes the withdrawn personality trait of many adult preemies to altered brain development. Previous studies have linked poor peer relations and social-emotional problems in childhood with regional disruptions in the white matter, in the right orbital frontal cortex which is a region involved in social regulations and social cognition.
Early stress experiences in the womb and over-protective parents are also thought to be potential factors contributing to a withdrawn personality.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,” said Wolke.
“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.”
The findings are published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood: Fetal & Neonatal Edition.
Source: University of Warwick