Babies Born Prematurely Less Likely to Have Romantic Partners, Sex, or Be Parents as Adults

Babies born prematurely or with a low birth weight are more likely to struggle to find romantic partners, ever have sex, and become parents, according to a study.

Researchers looked at data from 21 studies involving 4.4 million adults who were either born preterm or with a low weight. The research was published in the journal JAMA Network Open. The studies spanned Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Israel, Canada, U.S., New Zealand, and Australia.

Past research has found those born prematurely are at greater risk of developing disabilities, having neurocognitive impairments, as well as learning difficulties and mental health disorders. They are also on average more likely to be timid, socially withdrawn, overcontrolling, and to avoid risk-taking and seeking fun.

University of Warwick researcher Marina Mendonca and colleagues hoped their research would help them straighten out an inconsistent picture of whether those adults are also more likely to struggle with experiences which mark adulthood.

The team found these individuals were less likely to form romantic relationships, have sex, or become parents than those born full-term. Those born preterm were 28 percent less likely to form romantic relationships and 22 percent less likely to become parents. Preterm born adults were 57 percent less likely to ever have a sexual partner.

But, when these people did form romantic relationships or made friends, their bonds were found to be just as strong.

Mendonca, who works on the Research on European Children and Adults Born Preterm project, told Newsweek: "These associations were found for both men and women, and were stronger the lower gestational age. This means that the chances of finding a romantic partner or having children were lower for those born very or extremely preterm, with the extremely preterm born adults being for example 3.2 times less likely to ever have sexual relations when compared to their full term peers."

One of the most surprising findings was the link didn't differ between younger participants aged 18 to 25, and older, she said.

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A stock photo of a newborn baby. Scientists have investigated how being born prematurely can affect an individual in later life. Getty

"Previous studies had suggested that people born preterm could take longer to make social transitions normative of adult life, such as a romantic partnership and parenthood. Rather than a delay, our findings suggest persistent difficulties in making these social transitions, which have been associated with negative outcomes later in life, such as lower wealth, social isolation, and poorer physical and mental health."

Asked what she thinks might explain these problems, Mendonca said: "Previous research has shown that children born preterm have poorer social interactions: They are more often withdrawn and shy, socially excluded and less likely to take risks in adolescence. These characteristics seem to persist into adulthood making it harder for preterm adults to form relationships normative of adulthood, such as getting married or having children.

"We need, however, further research to test these associations and to identify the factors that put people born preterm at greater risk of not having romantic and sexual partners."

Mendonca said more needs to be done to encourage social interactions at younger ages. Those caring for preterm children should be more aware of the potential important role of social development and social integration for preterm children, she said.

Heidi M Feldman, Professor of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine, who has also published research on pre-term babies but wasn't involved in this work, told Newsweek clinicians appreciate meta-analyses as they are akin to "running a very, very large study."

Feldman said that the individuals assessed in this study were probably born between 1980-1990, when the care of the preterm infant was less sophisticated than it has become in the last 20 years. "Therefore, these adults may have had more substantial impacts of preterm birth than children who were born more recently," she argued. "We need continued research of this type to see if the current cohorts fare better than their predecessors," she said.

Julia Jaekel, Associate Professor at The University of Tennessee Knoxville and Co-Director of the Early Experiences Research Center (EERC) is working on a number of studies involving pre-term adults. Commenting on the study, which she wasn't involved in, she told Newsweek it has few limitations and is of a high quality with no evidence of publication bias.

However, Dr. Saroj Saigal, Professor Emerita in Pediatrics at McMaster University who founded the Neonatal Follow-up Program, one of the first of such projects in the U.S., told Newsweek that information on disability, physical and mental health outcomes weren't available in most studies featured.

"This is a big limitation as it is possible that in addition to prematurity, deficits due to disability and poorer health may have a significant moderating effect on these social outcomes," she told Newsweek.

"In our study up to the fourth decade of life, albeit a small sample size, differences in partnership and parenthood between extremely premature and term born individuals disappeared after premature participants with neurological impairments were excluded; however, differences in ever having experienced sexual intercourse still persisted."

The experts agreed the study highlights the importance of researching and providing care for preterm babies into adulthood.

Saigal said: "I think it is extremely important to continue studying premature infants throughout the life course not only for medical and mental health outcomes, but also for social outcomes that can have a significant impact on the overall quality of life."