Sex Moderates the Impact of Birth Weight on Child Externalizing Psychopathology

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Abstract

Low birth weight (LBW) has consistently been associated with childhood attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and a similar association has been found for childhood externalizing disorders, such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder (CD), albeit to a lesser degree. Although the association between LBW and these disorders has been robustly replicated, few studies have adequately controlled for confounding variables, such as parental age at birth and prenatal tobacco use, examined the specificity of the risk of LBW for ADHD symptoms, or investigated potential nonlinear (i.e., quadratic) effects of birth weight (BW). Additionally, the extent to which LBW confers risk for these disorders depending on childhood sex has rarely been examined. The current study examined associations between BW and ADHD, ODD, and CD symptom dimensions as well as the extent to which such associations are moderated by child sex, while also controlling for confounding variables. Significant interactions between sex and BW emerged across all analyses predicting ADHD and externalizing psychopathology, such that associations were stronger in males relative to females. Results remained when controlling for a number of confounds, including parental age, prenatal tobacco use, comorbid psychopathology, as well as other indicators of maternal and child health during the pre- and perinatal period. Both linear and quadratic associations emerged between BW and both hyperactivity and CD symptoms, whereas BW predicted inattention and ODD symptoms in a linear fashion. Future research should continue to investigate the impact of BW on ADHD and externalizing psychopathology, in particular, the biological mechanisms underlying this association.

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