WHAT IS LOW BIRTH WEIGHT?
Low Birth Weight (LBW) is a condition in which a child weighs less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces (2,500 grams). A low birth weight can have important implications for immediate health, muscle strength, and childhood growth.
Because birth weight is an important indicator of general health, newborn babies receive the designation of LBW if they weigh 2,499 grams or less at birth, regardless of gestational age. In addition, there are also subcategories of low birth weight. Very low birth weight (VLBW) occurs when a newborn baby weighs less than 1500 grams (3 pounds 5 ounces), and extremely low birth weight (ELBW) occurs when a baby is born weighing fewer than 1000 grams (2 pounds 3 ounces).
WHY IS BIRTH WEIGHT IMPORTANT?
Why is Birth Weight Important?
At birth, doctors routinely check an infant’s weight, length, and head size. Abnormal weight is one of the first indicators of other health problems. Studies have shown that babies with LBW may be at greater risk for lung, heart, and digestive complications during infancy, and they may be at greater risk for diabetes and heart disease later in life.
Babies with LWB not be strong enough to breastfeed or bottle-feed (sucking and muscle strength) and may struggle to get the nutrients they need. Very small babies may also have issues with internal organ function, problems and regulating blood sugar. They may struggle to breathe due to weaker respiratory muscles and lack the necessary overall body fat to keep them warm.
Healthy long-term growth is also a major concern. Without intervention, these infants may lack the necessary building blocks for strong muscles and other important developmental milestones.
CAUSES & RISK FACTORS
What Causes Low Birth Weight?
Premature birth is one of the primary causes of low birth weight. When a baby is born before 37 weeks, the fetus has less time in the uterus to gain weight. (Most of a fetus’s weight gain occurs during the last few weeks of pregnancy.) According to the World Health Organization, seven out of 10 premature babies have some form of low birth weight.
Another cause of low birth weight is intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR). This occurs when a fetus does not gain enough weight in the uterus due to an infection, problems with the placenta, the baby’s genetic health, or the mother’s health. IUGR can occur in both premature and full-term babies.
What are Other Risk Factors for Having a Baby With Low Birth Weight?
Other than prematurity and restricted growth, risk factors for low birth weight include the following:
- Multiple births (due to sharing uterine space or eventual prematurity)
- Birth order (first siblings are more likely to have low birth weight)
- Maternal health during pregnancy (preeclampsia, diabetes, obesity, or substance use)
- Maternal nutrition during pregnancy (malnourishment of vitamins and nutrients can cause low birth weight and affect how an infant grows afterward)
- Maternal age (mothers younger than 17 and older than 35 are more likely to have babies with born with low birth weight)
- Ethnic background (for unknown reasons, 1 in 7 African American babies and 1 in 12 Asian babies are born with low birth weight)
What is the Treatment for Low Birth Weight?
Depending on the severity of the condition, treatment for low birth weight can occur immediately after birth. For example, a LBW baby might need to stay in the hospital longer for observation or spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for extra help. In the NICU, they may require a temperature-controlled bed (due to lack of body fat for warmth) and special feedings through a gastro or IV tube.
Low birth weight babies are more at risk for developmental delays. It is important to monitor physical milestones and notify a physician if the child has trouble with feeding, sitting, self-help, gross motor and fine motor skills, or hand-eye coordination. The physician may recommend early childhood intervention (ECI) to get the LBW infant on the right track. Therapy services (especially feeding therapy and physical therapy) are also recommended for LBW babies struggling to reach certain milestones. Contact The Warren Center for more services for babies with low birth weight.