What are the risks associated with low birth weight

Babies born before completing 37 weeks of pregnancy are called ‘premature babies‘. They are born with lower than normal birth weight. Babies born around the full term may sometimes have low weight issues. Multiple birth pregnancy (twins or triplets) can lead to lower than normal birth weight for the babies. Here, in this article, we are going to consider singleton pregnancy and low weight babies born at the full term. According to WHO, babies born with a weight less than 2500 g (5 pounds, 8 ounces) are referred to as low birth weight (LBW) babies. Birth weight less than 1500 g is described as ‘very low birth weight’ (VLBW), and birth weight less than 1000 g is recognised as ‘extremely low birth weight’ (ELBW). 2500 g – 4200 g is considered as the normal weight for a newborn baby, for a full term delivery. Why some babies have low weight at the time of birth is explained below.

Causes of low birth weight

Premature babies have a low birth weight because they arrive in this world before time. A foetus needs enough time to grow. This applies to twins and triplets too. They are also born before term. Moreover, scarcity of space in mother’s womb affects their growth considerably. Why do babies born at full term weigh low? There are several reasons for having a low weight baby. Malnutrition or nutritional deficiencies in the mother is the most obvious reason for delivering a low birth weight baby. A mother should incorporate healthy and natural foods into her diet before and during pregnancy. She should avoid junk food, highly processed food, or foods containing high amount of preservatives.

Despite a healthy diet, the baby can be a low weight baby if the mother suffers from high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia. The reason being, this can reduce the blood flow to the foetus. Lack of blood results in lack of oxygen and nutrients which adversely affects the growth of the foetus. Babies with inherited medical conditions or structural abnormalities can have a low birth weight problem. If the mother is suffering from any physical problem (anaemia, diabetes, heart diseases, kidney/lung problems), the baby can be of low birth weight. Abnormalities of the uterus or cervix can affect the growth of the baby too. Placental problems lead to low blood supply and lack of nutrients in the foetus, restricting its growth. Infections in a mother or the baby, or even lack of education in mothers and chromosomal abnormalities are some of the other common causes of having low birth weight babies. Not only physical but emotional problems of the mother too can hamper the growth of the foetus. Women who consume drugs like heroin or cocaine, women who smoke or consume excessive alcohol, are likely to have babies whose weight is less than normal. What are the risks of low birth weight? Here is a brief overview of low birth weight consequences.

Risks of low birth weight

The average birth weight depends upon various factors, such as gender of the baby, overall health, lifestyle, and size of the parents, baby’s health, race and ethnicity, etc. Various studies have been conducted to explore the relationship between birth weight and later-life conditions, regarding physical and mental conditions. Low birth weight effects can be seen immediately after the birth, and also later in life.

Low birth weight complications include increased chances of infections in babies as their immune system is not well-developed. Babies born with a very low weight usually suffer from serious health problems like breathing difficulties, heart problems, jaundice, etc., and they require specialised care in a newborn intensive care unit (NICU). They might suffer from internal bleeding (bleeding in the brain), very thick blood (polycythaemia) or excessive red blood cells in the blood, low body temperature, low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia), intestinal problems, vision problems, etc. The mortality rate for babies is higher in extremely low birth weight cases as compared to those who have a normal weight.

Studies show that babies born with low birth weight are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and they are more likely to suffer from obesity, in later life. Various study reports show that increased birth weight and increased intelligence quotient go hand in hand. According to some studies, there is an increased risk of attention problems with low birth weight babies in the urban communities. But such problems are also seen in normal weight babies. It is really difficult to predict how a newborn baby will do in the future. But why take the risk?

Women, who are planning to start a family, should consult a doctor. They should undergo physical checkups before and during their pregnancy at regular intervals. Early detection of a problem helps avoid severe health complications later. The weight of a ‘normal weight woman’ should usually increase during pregnancy. Such weight gain indicates healthy growth of the baby. To prevent low birth weight risks, mothers should take care of themselves properly, and should follow a healthy and stress-free lifestyle. Breastfeeding a low weight baby, strictly following the schedule of development-checks for the baby, and as the baby gets older, feeding the baby according to a healthy diet plan, can help the baby attain the normal rate of growth in due course of time.


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