Low birthweight is defined as being less than 2500 grams (or 5.5 pounds) at birth, with premature birth being a common cause of such low birthweight babies.
Birthweight is one of the key indicators of the health and viability of a newborn infant. It is one of the leading causes of infant mortality. Low birthweight infants are 40 times more likely to die in their first month of life than normal birthweight infants. They are also twice as likely as other infantsto exhibit health problems and serious developmental delays during childhood.
Several factors contribute to low birthweight. These include teenage pregnancies, unwanted or unintended pregnancies, lack of prenatal care, poor nutrition during pregnancy leading to poor maternal weight gain, maternal smoking, and the use of alcohol and other drugs during pregnancy. All of these factors are preventable, and are called "preventable risk factors."
Maternal age, maternal health, fetal infection, ethnicity, multiple births, socio-economic status, genetic makeup, obstetric history, and a variety of genetic and metabolic disorders can also contribute to low birthweight. Women over 45 years and under 20 years of age are more likely to have a low birthweight baby. African American infants are twice as likely as infants of all otherracial groups in American to be born low birthweight. Poor families are at ahigher risk of having low birthweight babies. Multiple births also pose an increased risk of low birthweight. Despite that, the rate of triplets and other multiple births are on an increase because of the usage of fertility drugs.
The belief that a mother's psychological state can influence her unborn babyexists in many cultures all around the world. By the same token, it has beenshown that mothers who live in high risk neighborhoods and encounter crime, poverty, and violence on a daily basis are very likely to have low birth weight babies. This may be because of the stress in their lives. Stress has been shown to reduce blood flow to the uterus and that could possibly slow fetal growth.
The problems of being low birthweight do not resolve even if the infant survives the first year after birth. As a group, these infants have higher rates of developmental problems, subnormal growth, and health problems than other children. By school age, these children are more likely to have learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, developmental impairments,and breathing problems. Research has shown that low birthweight babies also have higher rates of psychosocial disabilities at adolescence.
There have been some studies which show that prematurity leading to low birthweight is associated with developmental speech and language difficulties as well as an increased risk for diabetes as adults. Researchers speculate that this may be because of some biochemical modifications being made in the body of the undernourished infant before birth.
The factors that contribute to low birthweight are complex, and hence low birthweight prevention is not an easy issue to address. Without doubt, however,it is problem worthy of a national effort. The overall social environment hasto considered and a community wide approach has to be adopted.
Life style behaviors such as cigarette smoking, weight gain during pregnancy and the use of alcohol and other drugs play an important role in determining fetal growth. Cigarette smoking is one of the biggest known risk factors for low birthweight. About 20% of all low birthweights can be avoided if women did not smoke during pregnancy. Reducing heavy use of alcohol and otherdrugs could also significantly reduce the rate of low birthweight babies.
Pregnancy and the prospect of motherhood provide an important window of opportunity in a woman's life to improve her health and bring about some life style changes. Adoption of healthy lifestyle behaviors such as ceasing to smoke,giving up drug and alcohol use, eating an adequate diet, and gaining enough weight during pregnancy could positively affect the health of the woman and the health of her children.
For expectant mothers of all age groups and income levels, the same advice holds true. Early and good prenatal care increases the chances of a healthy baby and provides an array of medical, nutritional and educational interventions. These should reduce the incidence of low birthweight and other adverse outcomes.