Number of Irish babies born with low birth weight on the rise

Proportion of babies with low birth weight grew from 4.9% in 2000 to 5.9% in 2015

The number of Irish  babies born with low birth wieght is rising at a rate exceeded only by Czechia among higher income countries. Photograph: iStock

The number of Irish babies born with low birth wieght is rising at a rate exceeded only by Czechia among higher income countries. Photograph: iStock

 

An increasing number of Irish babies are being born with low birth weight, putting them at increased risk of health issues during life, a major international study shows.

The proportion of Irish babies born with low birth weight grew from 4.9 per cent in 2000 to 5.9 per cent in 2015, against international trends, according to the study published in The Lancet Global Health.

While all 195 member states of the World Health Organisation committed to a 30 per cent reduction in low birth weight prevalence by 2025, Irish figures are rising at a rate exceeded only by Czechia among higher income countries.

The trend can be attributed to a number of factors, including an increase in multiple births arising from IVF use and greater numbers of older women having babies, according to Prof Shane Higgins, master of the National Maternity Hospital.

Other factors include more babies born to women with serious health issues, who previously would not have been able to conceive, and smoking.

While the Irish figure is lower than the US (8 per cent) and the UK (7 per cent), it compares unfavourably with Sweden, where just 2.4 per cent of babies are born with low weight. This is defined at less than 2.5kg.

Prof Higgins said most babies who were marginally low weight did very well, unless they had other problems, and the bigger concern was very low weight babies, around 1kg. Higher rates of Caesarean sections were not a causal factor, he added, though women with smaller babies were at greater risk of requiring one.

One in seven babies worldwide – about 20.5 million – is born with a low birth weight, 90 per cent in low and middle-income countries, according to the analysis by researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Unicef and WHO.

Factors

They say the findings highlight the need for more action to accelerate progress, by tackling the drivers of low birth weight, including extremes of maternal age, multiple pregnancies, obstetric complications, infections, and tobacco and drug use.

“In low-income countries, poor growth in the womb is a major cause of low birth weight. In more developed regions, it is often associated with prematurity [a baby born earlier than 37 weeks’ gestation].

“Despite clear commitments, our estimates indicate that national governments are doing too little to reduce low birth weight,” said lead author Dr Hannah Blencowe.

“We have seen very little change over 15 years, even in high-income settings. To meet the global target of a 30 per cent reduction in low birth weight by 2025 will require more than doubling the pace of progress.”