What causes low birth weights? 8 possible conditions
Infant low birth weight (LBW) is when babies weigh less than five pounds, eight ounces at birth. LBW often occurs in babies who are born prematurely, before 37 weeks of gestation. It is also common in multiple birth situations. According to the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, about 7 percent of all babies born in the U.S. each year have LBW. The number is increasing, potentially due to the fact that multiple births are increasing. Developing countries have much higher incidences of infants with LBW.
The average birth weight in the U.S. is around seven pounds (LPCH). Babies born with LBW appear smaller than normal newborns. They are usually thin, have minimal body fat, and have disproportionately large heads.
Low birth weight is primarily caused by premature birth. Since babies grow a lot in the later stages of pregnancy, many babies born before the 37th week are small, or have LBW.
LBW may also be caused by:
- problems with the placenta, or intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR)
- complications with the pregnancy
- not enough weight gain by the mother
- birth defects
Poor maternal nutrition, incomplete prenatal care, or drug or alcohol abuse by the mother can also cause LBW.
In the U.S., babies born to African-American mothers or very young mothers (under 15 years old) are more at risk (Child Health USA). Babies who are part of multiple births are also more likely to be born with LBW.
Babies born with low birth weight have a higher risk of developmental difficulties, health complications, and death than babies born at a normal weight. These babies are often weaker than babies with normal birth weight.
LBW babies often have trouble eating, gaining weight, staying warm, and warding off illness and infection. Some common health complications of LBW infants include respiratory problems, underdeveloped organs (such as lungs), eye or ear complications, digestive problems, neurological problems, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The lower the birth weight, the greater the risk of complications.
Low birth weight is determined by weighing the baby at birth. If the baby weighs less than five pounds, eight ounces, he or she will be diagnosed with LBS. Very low birth weight (VLBW) is the diagnosis for babies weighing less than three pounds, five ounces.
Doctors monitor the approximate size and weight of the baby throughout prenatal care. This helps to identify a potential LBW situation early on. Ultrasound technology measures the baby while in utero.
Treatment for low birth weight depends on the unique situation of the baby and mother. Babies born with LBW often need to stay in the hospital until they gain enough weight. Babies with other complications, such as underdeveloped lungs or intestinal problems, will stay in the hospital until their complications have improved through medical care. LBW infants are often cared for in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), using special temperature-controlled beds and feeding techniques.
The World Health Organization advises that low birth weight infants should be fed their mother’s milk whenever possible. This aids growth and weight gain (WHO). If the mother’s milk isn’t available, human donor milk is best. Formula is considered a last resort for nutrition.
Infants born with low birth weight but no other complications often grow up normally. In some cases, developmental delays, minor mental disabilities, or health problems will persist throughout life, with varying degrees of severity.
Prognosis for LBW infants with other complications depends on what health challenges they face. Advances in medicine have made it more likely that babies with low birth weight and related complications will survive. The lower the birth weight, the higher the chance of mortality.
- Care of the preterm and/or low-birth-weight newborn. (n.d.). World Health Organization (WHO). Retrieved August 27, 2013, from http://www.who.int/maternal_child_adolescent/topics/newborn/care_of_preterm/en/
- Feeding of low-birth-weight infants. (n.d.). World Health Organization (WHO). Retrieved August 27, 2013, from http://www.who.int/elena/titles/supplementary_feeding/en/
- Intensive Care Nursery House Staff Manual. (2004). UCSF Children’s Hospital. Retrieved August 27, 2013, from http://www.ucsfbenioffchildrens.org/pdf/manuals/20_VLBW_ELBW.pdf
- Low birth weight. (2011). Child Health USA. Retrieved December 5, 2013, from http://mchb.hrsa.gov/chusa11/hstat/hsi/pages/201lbw.html
- Low birthweight. (n.d.). Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. Retrieved August 27, 2013, from http://www.lpch.org/DiseaseHealthInfo/HealthLibrary/hrnewborn/lbw.html
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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