December 06, 2007

Mental Health Starts During Pregnancy: Lower Birth Weight Babies Have More Mental Problems

A new research study has confirmed the relationship between low birth weight and the later development of mental health problems. The study, which is published in this month's issue of the journal, Biological Psychiatry, looked at data collected during a large and long-running study.

Over 4,600 participants of the original study, which was conducted in survey form, were " Great Britain...for symptoms of anxiety and depression over a 40-year period" beginning with their births in 1946.

Researchers of the recent study analyzed this data and found that participants with low birth weights were more likely to later exhibit symptoms of both depression and anxiety:

We found that even people who had just mild or moderate symptoms of depression or anxiety over their life course were smaller babies than those who had better mental health," said lead author Ian Colman of the University of Alberta's School of Public Health. "It suggests a dose-response relationship. As birth weight progressively decreases, it's more likely that an individual will suffer from mood disorders later in life.

Researchers of the study believe the results further support the idea that conditions in the womb have a direct impact on the long-term health of the baby. However, mental health doesn't seem to be the only thing negatively affected by conditions in the womb; the researchers also discovered that babies with lower birth weights showed developmental delays in the areas of standing, walking, etc. (problems that have been identified at a higher rate in studies of children that later develop schizophrenia).

Its important to note that the researchers aren't saying that a small baby is inevitably going to experience developmental or mental health related problems - just that they have a higher risk of these problems (and therefore it may be more important to look at risk reduction strategies that we've outlined here). Further, the data had no information on gestational period, so the researchers didn't analyze any data connecting premature babies to later mental health or developmental problems (premature babies are generally of low birth weight, and also have a higher incidence of health problems).

The researchers, however, bring up a topic that we've covered in the past: stress and its effect on a child. They say that it isn't the size of the baby necessarily, but rather the cause of the small size, that's of importance here. For example, they say that stress experienced by the future mother during pregnancy is a possible cause of low birth weight in the baby, and resulting future mental health and developmental problems for the baby:

When a mother is really stressed, blood flow to the uterus is restricted and the fetus gets fewer nutrients, which tends to lead to lower birth weight. At the same time, because the mother is stressed, stress hormones are passing through the placenta to the fetus and may affect the fetus's neurodevelopment and stress response...Under these conditions, the part of the child's brain that deals with stress could be programmed incorrectly in utero--the brain doesn't develop as it would under ideal circumstances. If this theory is correct, you would find that when stressful events occur, the people who were smaller babies would be more likely to become depressed or anxious...

The researchers conclude by saying that pregnant women should be better taken care of and that stress during pregnancy has potentially serious negative consequences on the future health of the fetus.

Also relevant to this story are other findings on actions that help pregnant women have healthy babies. Some important dietary components relevant to pregnancy are:

  • Folic acid - Low amounts of folic acid in the diets of pregnant women have been linked to lower birth-weight babies. A contributing factor to these low levels is smoke, i.e., pregnant women who smoke are likely to have low levels of folic acid and as a result, smaller babies. Therefore its important for pregnant women to get adequate amounts of Folic Acid, also called "folate". Medical professionals recommend at least 800mg of Folic Acid per day during pregnancy - The simplest way to increase folic acid levels is by taking supplements, but it is also advisable to eat folate-rich foods such as green vegetables (broccoli, spinach), citrus fruits (oranges, limes, grapefruit) or wholemeal products such as brown bread or high-fibre cereals. In some countries, including the US, food is fortified with folic acid to ensure that women have enough.
  • Vitamin D - Vitamin D has long been known to prevent bone malformations in babies. However, researchers have also found that low amounts of vitamin D in diet of pregnant women can also result in smaller babies and babies may be at higher risk of schizophrenia and other mental disorders. Therefore, its very important that pregnant women get sufficient Vitamin D in their diet. New research has found that more than 80 percent of black women and nearly half of white woman tested when their children were born "had levels of vitamin D that were too low, even though more than 90 percent of them used prenatal vitamins during pregnancy". Canadian experts are now recommending that pregnant women take 2,000 iu of Vitamin D per day. Many doctors are suggesting that mothers continue to consume at least 800mg of Vitamin D a day while breast feeding, to make sure that the child gets enough Vitamin D. Infants, whether they are breast-fed or not, should receive 200 IU of supplementary vitamin D daily from 2 months of age until they are drinking a minimum 17 ounces of vitamin D--fortified milk daily to prevent rickets, a recent policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends
  • Vitamin C & E - Women with larger amounts of both vitamin C and E in their diet while pregnant, have larger babies
  • Full Story: Study finds smaller babies prone to mood disorder later in life (University of Alberta)

    Related Reading:
    Growth Mindset Is Helpful in Reducing Stress and Preventing Schizophrenia
    More on Stress
    Chronic Mild Stress During Pregnancy and an Increased Risk for Brain Disorders for the Child


    because of the biological, neurodevelopmental nature (see )some doctors argue that this should not be classified as mental illness not ven psychotic disorder because it is more like dementia. it doesn't make sense that this group of babies with this neurobiology has mental illness any more than when they have autism. autism is not mental illness either. it is neurodevelopmental.

    Posted by: Brett at December 7, 2007 06:00 AM

    For the maintainers: the forum is malfunctioning for a couple of days already.

    Posted by: CopperKettle at December 7, 2007 11:30 AM

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