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Premature birth: helping babies whose early arrival has put them at risk of future anxiety

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Estimates suggest around 15,500 babies are born very early, before 32 weeks of pregnancy, each year in the UK.1-5 Babies who are born this early are thought to be nearly twice as likely as other babies to have problems with anxiety during adolescence.6 Anxiety can leave children feeling scared or embarrassed, for example, or cause physical symptoms like tummy ache. It can interfere with school, home and social life. Dr Chiara Nosarti, of King’s College London, is developing a way to tell which babies are most likely to have problems with anxiety while they’re growing up, so they can get early support and treatment.

How are children’s lives affected now?

“Being born very early can result in many challenges for children as they grow up, including an increased risk of anxiety and other mental health problems,” says Dr Nosarti.7 “Children may find it hard to relate to other people and to understand emotions, for example, causing significant psychological distress for them and their families.

“If children develop severe anxiety, this can have wide-ranging effects on all aspects of life, including relationships, education and future employment, seriously harming young lives” says Dr Nosarti.

A lot can be done to help stop children from being anxious and to support them if they are showing signs of anxiety. Although babies who were born very early are known to be at increased risk of anxiety, at the moment it’s not possible to tell, before early signs and symptoms start to appear, which of those babies will, and which babies won’t, go on to be affected.

How could this research help?

The researchers aim to develop a way to use brain scans, taken around the time of birth, to predict which babies who are born very early might have problems with anxiety as they grow and develop.

Around 50, seven-year-old children who were born before 32 weeks of pregnancy are taking part in the study, along with another 50 children who were born at full term.

“If we could use brain scans to identify those premature babies who are most at risk of anxiety in the future, then monitoring and early treatment might prevent, or reduce, symptoms, and spare both the babies and their families from a great deal of distress,” says Dr Nosarti.

In the future, the researchers plan to use their new understanding of the links between anxiety and changes in the brain to design a new video game, with the aim of helping vulnerable children to develop their social skills and gain better control of their emotions.

Funded by a generous donation from Dangoor Education.


1. WHO Preterm Birth Fact Sheet 06 September 2017

2. NICE guidance doc for Preterm labour and birth 2013.

3. Office for National Statistics. Statistical bulletin: Births in England and Wales: 2016. Live births, stillbirths, and the intensity of childbearing measured by the total fertility rate. Website accessed 6 Sep 2017.

4. National Records of Scotland: 2016 Births, Deaths and Other Vital Events – Preliminary Annual Figures. Table P2. Website accessed 6 Sep 2017.

5. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Births. Monthly births. Website accessed 6 Sep 2017.

6. Sømhovd MJ et al. Anxiety in adolescents born preterm or with very low birthweight: a meta-analysis of case-control studies. Dev Med Child Neurol 2012; 54: 988-94.

7. Johnson S et al. Early and long-term outcome of infants born extremely preterm. Archives of Disease in Childhood 2017; 102: 97-102.





Project Leader Dr Chiara Nosarti PhD
Project Team Professor J Serena Counsell PhDProfessor Francesca GE Happé PhD
Project Location Department of Psychosis Studies, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London
Project Location Other Centre for the Developing Brain, Department of Perinatal Imaging and Health, Faculty of Life Sciences and Medicine, King’s College LondonMRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London
Project duration 3 years
Date awarded 24 July 2017
Project start date 1 March 2018
Project end date 30 August 2021
Grant amount £185,999
Grant code GN2606


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