Children’s birth weight is significantly related to their behavior at school age

30 Jul 2021

Several studies confirm the significant impact of a mother’s environment, behavior, physical, and mental health on their child’s health and weight at birth. However, does birth weight also relate to how the child will prosper in the future, how they will behave, and their study and work prospects, for example? Scientists from RECETOX at Masaryk University’s Faculty of Science examined this issue in an article published in the prestigious scientific journal PLOS ONE. They sought answers to these questions by analyzing data from the Czech part of the ELSPAC long-term population study, in which thousands of children, their parents, and doctors participated for twenty years. 

Most current studies examine the relationship between birth weight and children's behavioral problems, emphasizing the difference between low (below 2,500 g) and normal birth weights. These studies clearly show that low birth weight children are more likely to experience behavioral problems at a later age. Researchers from prof. Julie Dobrovolna’s group at RECETOX examined whether this relationship can be generalized to normal birth weights (2,500 - 4,500 g). They looked for answers to whether children at the lower limit of normal birth weight are more prone to behavioral problems than those who weigh more. In other words, whether a three-kilogram newborn would have more educational problems in the future than a four-kilogram newborn. 

In order to confirm or refute this hypothesis, the researchers used data from the Czech part of the European Longitudinal Study of Pregnancy and Childhood (ELSPAC) cohort. The sample population consisted of 1,796 children born in the early 1990s in Brno. While their birth weight and length were obtained from available birth records, difficulties or behavioral disorders were assessed by a standardized qualitative tool, the so-called Strengths, and Difficulties Questionnaire, completed by the children’s parents. The relatively short questionnaire assesses children and adolescents' behavior, emotional experience, and social relationships between ages 3 to 16. For this study, mothers' responses evaluating the behavior of their 7-year-old children were also used. "By analyzing these data, we found a demonstrable relationship between birth weight and behavioral problems in school-age children. Specifically, we can say that the lower birth weight in a given population sample was associated with manifestations of hyperactivity, inattention, and problems in relationships with peers at a later age," says prof. Julie Dobrovolná, one of the study's authors and head of the Environmental Physiology research group at the RECETOX research center. 

According to many authors, there is a demonstrable link between children's behavior and academic or professional success later in life. "This connection has been repeatedly proven between so-called externalizing behavioral problems, which include hyperactivity and inattention evaluated in our study. Children who have less externalizing behavioral problems are more likely to succeed in work, study, and social life in adulthood. From this knowledge and with the help of our study, we could deduce that there is a relationship between prenatal environment, birth weight and childhood behavior, which could then affect the success of an individual in adulthood, "said Lucie Ráčková, postgraduate student Professor Julia Dobrovolná . However, this relationship does not have to be decisive and unchangeable, and the results achieved in adulthood can be influenced significantly. We know from published studies that problem behavior in childhood is modifiable by teaching the child self-control, i.e., the ability to manage and consciously control their emotions and work with their feelings. It has been proven that children who can better control how they express their emotions are more successful in work, academic, and social life in adulthood than those who cannot. Of course, family relationships and the approach of parents and teachers to the child are also vital for children's behavior. Children growing up in a loving, caring, and positive environment show less problematic behavior than children in a chaotic, controlling, and hostile environment. 

The study by RECETOX researchers demonstrates the connection between the birth weight of a child and the behavior of school-age children and, in combination with other studies, also suggests a possible connection with future success in study or employment. At the same time, it also states that it is possible to significantly influence this negative relationship, especially with supportive family background and the ability to work with one's emotions. The study also points out that the baby's birth weight is influenced by the environment that affected the mother during pregnancy and the mental and physical well-being and health of the mother herself. In particular, these factors affect how a baby develops during pregnancy and how their birth weight and neurophysiological functions adjust, affecting their behavior and response to environmental stimuli. 


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