16 May 2019
A new study from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF estimates that globally 20.5 million babies were born with a low birthweight in 2015 – around 1 in 7 babies.
The analysis, published in The Lancet Global Health, involved 148 countries and 281 million births, and showed that almost three-quarters of these babies were born in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where data are most limited.
However, the problem also remains substantial in high-income countries in Europe, North America, and Australia and New Zealand, where there has been virtually no progress in reducing low birthweight rates since 2000. One of the lowest rates was estimated in Sweden (2.4%). This compares to around 7% in some high-income countries including the USA (8%), the UK (7%), Australia (6.5%), and New Zealand (5.7%).
These findings highlight the urgent need for more investment and action to accelerate progress, through understanding and tackling key drivers of low birthweight throughout life—including extremes of maternal age, multiple pregnancy, obstetric complications, chronic maternal conditions (e.g., hypertensive disorders of pregnancy), infections (eg, malaria), and nutritional status, as well as exposure to environmental factors such as indoor air pollution, and tobacco and drug use. In low-income countries, poor growth in the womb is a major cause of low birthweight. In more developed regions, low birthweight is often associated with prematurity (a baby born earlier than 37 weeks gestation).
The studies’ authors call for international action to ensure that all babies are weighed at birth, to improve clinical care, and to promote public health action on the causes of low birth weight to reduce death and disability.
In response to the study, Anna Kettley, Unicef UK, Director of Programmes said: “The UK’s low birthweight rate has stagnated at 7% for more than a decade, highlighting the need to improve care for the one in seven babies born alive in the UK who require specialist neonatal care. This places the UK behind other countries such as Turkmenistan, China and Cuba, despite our world-class National Health Service.
“But it’s not just healthcare that impacts these results. The situation in the UK reflects a trend across all high-income countries, where low birthweight rates could be related to increasing preterm births alongside a lack of progress tackling underlying risk factors such as low socioeconomic status, smoking in pregnancy, maternal obesity and non-communicable diseases.
“Premature and sick babies are extremely vulnerable and are at much greater risk of infection and developmental difficulties. The environment within a neonatal unit can create physical and emotional barriers for parents who may be unable to touch, hold and care for their child, leaving feelings of distress and disempowerment. Unicef UK’s Baby Friendly Initiative supports neonatal units to address these challenges, empowering parents to be active partners in their baby’s care, supporting the development of close and loving parent-infant relationships, and enabling babies to receive breastmilk, which gives them vital protection against infection and supports their short and long-term health outcomes.”
Find out more about our neonatal standards.
Read the full study in The Lancet.