If someone says coming too early can hinder your love life, they’re probably not thinking of being born before the due date. Yet an enormous meta-study has found preterm babies are less likely to form romantic partnerships as adults and also have fewer children of their own. These effects aren't inevitable, but currently almost nothing is being done to improve social outcomes for those born early.
The health consequences of very early birth are well known, but effects on personality get less attention. People born before 37 weeks are more likely to be shy and withdrawn, which led Dr Marina Mendonça of the University of Warwick to explore how this influences their romantic lives.
In JAMA Network Open, Mendonça reports that those born more than three weeks early are 28 percent less likely to report being in a romantic relationship, 22 percent less likely to have children, and barely half as likely to have ever had sex in their early 20s. The shorter a child's gestation, the greater the effect as adults. The results are based on a sample of 4.4 million adults from 21 studies in 12 countries, so can hardly be accused of representing an inadequate sample size.
Mendonça stressed in a statement that physical limitations are not a major factor. "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.”
Being preterm doesn't affect the quality of relationships, at least as far as that can be quantified. A person born prematurely rated both their friendships and romantic relationships as being as satisfying as those between people born close to the due date.
The lesson Mendonça and co-authors draw from the findings is that parents and educators should be aware preterm babies are likely to be shy and provide support to overcome this in childhood and adolescence. Senior author Professor Dieter Wolke said: “Supporting them making friends and be integrated in their peer group will help them to find romantic partners, have sexual relationships and to become parents. All of which enhances well-being."
However, such interventions might not always come naturally. As teenagers, those who were born early are less prone to risk-taking or “fun-seeking”. Mendonça and Wolke's work suggests teen rebelliousness isn't all bad, but parents and educators may find it hard to admit it.
The paper doesn't explore the question of how more babies can be carried to term. However, with abundant evidence that air pollution and fracking can raise the rates of early birth among exposed mothers, the paper is one more reason why we need to start tackling this neglected issue.