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Study: NICU Babies at Greater Risk of Later Mental Health Issues

Newborns who spend time in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) have a greater risk of mental health issues later, regardless of their birth weight, according to a new Canadian study from McMaster University in Ontario.

Researchers evaluated the mental health of NICU graduates in childhood (four to 11 years) and adolescence (12 to 17 years), using data from parent and youth psychiatric interviews.

The study builds on previous research suggesting that extremely low birth weight babies who are admitted to the NICU are more likely to develop mental health issues during those years.

“Advancements in the medical care of patients admitted to the NICU have led to improved outcomes for infants and families, and the need for NICUs has increased in Canada and the U.S.,” said study senior author Dr. Ryan Van Lieshout, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster.

“However, little has been known about the mental health of the broader population of NICU graduates, particularly as they enter late childhood and by McMaster. Parents provided information on psychiatric disorders for 3,141 children, ages four to 11, and in 2,379 adolescents, ages 12 to 17. Additionally, 2,235 adolescents completed the interview themselves.

The findings show that children who had a NICU admission were nearly twice as likely to have any mental disorder or have more than one mental illness. The risk of separation anxiety disorder, specific phobia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or oppositional defiant disorder also increased.

Adolescent NICU graduates remained at nearly twice the risk for developing any psychiatric problem, multiple psychiatric problems and oppositional defiant disorder as reported by the teens and their parents.

“Existing follow-up guidelines of preterm infants suggest monitoring for mental health issues, and this study provides preliminary evidence that in the future it may be prudent to expand this to all infants who stay in a NICU regardless of birth weight status,” said Van Lieshout.

Van Lieshout added that more research is needed to better understand potential causal factors, and further identify at-risk individuals.

The findings are published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Source: McMaster University


Study: NICU Babies at Greater Risk of Later Mental Health Issues

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Study: NICU Babies at Greater Risk of Later Mental Health Issues. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 29 Jan 2020 (Originally: 29 Jan 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 29 Jan 2020
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