Babies born prematurely are less likely to grow up to become parents themselves. In fact, adults born preterm are significantly less likely to experience romantic relationships at all, a massive new study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association shows. They’re also more likely to miss out on close, meaningful relationships throughout their lives, the study finds.
The implications are as wide-reaching as they are worrisome. Approximately one out of every 10 infants is born preterm in the U.S., which already puts them at an increased risk for disabilities, neurocognitive impairments, learning difficulties, and mental health problems — and the more premature they are, the greater the risk. There’s evidence that these childhood deficits may be linked to lower socioeconomic status in adulthood, but few studies have looked at other social outcomes in adulthood, such as the ability to form and maintain friendships and romantic relationships.
To get more information, researchers screened over 1,800 scientific studies on preterm or low-birth-weight infants and outcomes in adulthood, and identified 21 studies related to romantic partnerships, quality of romantic relationships, sexual activity, parenthood, and peer-group support. This included analysis of 4.4 million adults born at less than 37 weeks. Results revealed that men and women who were born preterm were 28 percent less likely to form romantic relationships, 22 percent less likely to become parents, and 2.3 times less likely to ever have a sexual partner, compared to adults born full-term. While there were no significant differences in terms of men and women, the earlier people were born, the greater the effects were. For instance, individuals who were born extremely preterm, 28 weeks or less, were 3.2 times less likely to ever have sex.
“The finding that adults who were born preterm are less likely to have a partner, to have sex, and become parents does not appear to be explained by a higher rate of disability,” study co-author Dr. Marina Goulart de Mendonça, a psychology professor at the University of Warwick, said in a statement. “Rather, preterm-born children have been previously found to have poorer social interactions in childhood that make it harder for them to master social transitions such as finding a partner, which in turn is proven to boost your well-being.”
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This echoes past research that preterm babies tend to grow up to be more shy, socially withdrawn, risk-averse children, and indicates that this could hinder or delay their ability to form relationships in adulthood. Of course, the findings do not suggest that premature babies are doomed to become incels, but that socially-driven early childhood interventions could close these gaps for them, study co-author psychologist Dr. Dieter Wolke explained.
“Those caring for preterm children including parent’s health professionals and teachers should be more aware of the important role of social development and social integration for preterm children,” Wolke said. “As preterm children tend to be more timid and shy, supporting them making friends and being integrated in their peer group will help them to find romantic partners, have sexual relationships, and become parents. All of which enhances well-being.”