Expectant mothers can significantly reduce the risk of having very low birth weight babies if they maintain good nutrition and proper prenatal care throughout their pregnancy.

A very low birth weight infant is defined as one weighing less than 1.5 kg. Low birth weight can happen in both premature and full-term births. Most healthy newborns weigh between 2.5 - 4.5 kg (5.5 - 10 lbs).

“Two major causes for low birth weight in newborns are premature birth and intrauterine growth restriction, a condition in which the foetus experiences poor growth in the womb, often due to poor maternal nutrition,” says Associate Professor Yeo Cheo Lian, Senior Consultant, Department of Neonatal & Developmental Medicine at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), a member of the SingHealth group.

A premature birth is when the baby is delivered at less than 37 weeks. Premature birth accounts for about 70 per cent of all low birth weight deliveries.

The good news is, only a very small percentage of newborns are born extremely low birth weight.

Other causes of low birth weight in infants

  • Smoking
  • Multiple pregnancy
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Poor nutrition
  • Birth defects

Maternal and foetal infections, such as cytomegalovirus, chicken pox and rubella, or medical problems in expectant mothers, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, uterine and cervix abnormalities, can also explain low birth weight deliveries.

Complications from low birth weight

Very low birth weight infants may face a lifetime of health challenges. They are generally more prone to diseases such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease in adult life.

Other complications include cerebral palsy, vision and hearing loss, as well as slower cognitive and motor development.

Tips to lower your risk of having a low birth weight infant

  • Start prenatal care early
    Prenatal care is important as it helps to detect early any medical problems such as gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, a condition where blood flow to the placenta reduces, which in turn restricts the supply of nutrition to the foetus. During each prenatal visit, the gynaecologist will closely monitor the mother’s blood pressure, weight gain, and the baby’s growth and heart rate.
  • Make significant lifestyle changes
    Smoking and alcohol are known to increase the risk of having a low birth weight infant. Stop smoking and stop drinking alcohol. Minor lifestyle adaptations like minimising stress and having sufficient sleep can have significant benefits on growing foetus.
  • Keep pre-existing medical illnesses under control
    Expectant mothers with pre-existing high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes are more likely to have low birth weight infants.
  • Maintain healthy weight gain and good nutrition
    Pregnancy is not the time for dieting! Maintain good nutrition, and especially at the beginning of your pregnancy, increase your intake of folic acid which is found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Folic acid deficiency is linked to premature births and low birth weight.

“The survival rates of very low birth weight infants have improved significantly with more advanced neonatal care,” says A/Prof Yeo. Optimal pre-pregnancy weight, observing good health through appropriate exercises, avoidance of caffeine and timely supplementation of appropriate vitamins and folate from early pregnancy help with ensuring a healthy pregnancy and having baby of appropriate birth weight.

Parent support groups such as the Light-Weight Club (LWC) at SGH also provide invaluable support to parents who need caregiving guidance.

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