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Foetal origins of depression? A systematic review and meta-analysis of low birth weight and later depression

  • W. Wojcik (a1), W. Lee (a1), I. Colman (a2), R. Hardy (a3) and M. Hotopf (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 13 April 2012

The foetal origins hypothesis suggests an association between low birth weight and later depression, yet evidence supporting this association has been inconsistent.


We systematically reviewed evidence for an association between low birth weight and adult depression or psychological distress in the general population by meta-analysis. We searched EMBASE, Medline, PsycINFO and ISI Web of Science for studies reporting observational data with low birth weight as the exposure and self- or clinician-rated depression or psychological distress measures as an outcome. Selective studies of exposures such as famine or outcomes such as severe illness only were excluded. Altogether,1454 studies were screened for relevance, 26 were included in the qualitative synthesis, 18 were included in the meta-analysis. A random effects meta-analysis method was used to obtain a pooled estimate of effect size.


The odds of depression or psychological distress was greater for those of low birth weight (<2500 g) compared to those of normal birth weight (>2500 g) or greater [odds ratio (OR) 1.15, 95% confidence intervals (CI) 1.00–1.32]. However, this association became non-significant after trim-and-fill correction for publication bias (OR 1.08, 95% CI 0.92–1.27). Using meta-regression, no differences in effect size were observed by gender, outcome measure of depression or psychological distress, or whether the effect size was adjusted for possible confounders.


We found evidence to support a weak association between low birth weight and later depression or psychological distress, which may be due to publication bias. It remains possible that the association may vary according to severity of symptoms or other factors.

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*Address for correspondence: Dr W. Wojcik, Department of Psychological Medicine, Weston Education Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, London SE5 9RJ, UK. (Email:
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