Low Birth Weight Babies - Causes, Symptoms and Prevention
Health Education

Avoiding Low Birth Weight Babies

Dr.Surya Rao Poodipeddi profile Authored by Dr.Surya Rao Poodipeddi on 10 Sep 2014 - 14:58.

Low birth weight affects about one in 13 births, a phenomenon which is becoming increasingly across the globe. Low birth weight has several implications leading to increased risk of serious long-term health problems (into the adult years) and not just during infancy.

Though one cannot be very clear what constitutes a low birth weight, it is believed that there are two types of low birth weight:

  • Any baby born with a birth weight less than 5.8 lbs is considered a low birth weight baby and
  • Any baby born with a weight less than 3.5 lbs is identified as a baby with very low birth weight.

Further low birth weight babies fall into two categories:

  • Some babies may have low birth weight because they are born pre-term (premature birth)
  • Some babies are born with low birth weight due underweight for their gestational age.


In both categories, the common causes for low birth weight include:

  • Use of tobacco: Though not common in India, though very few women are catching up with this habit.
  • Alcohol Use: This again though not very common but seen in among women in the lower economic groups.
  • Drug use: Cocaine is the common drug used. Luckily fewer women in our country are exposed to this habit.
  • Excessive stress and anxiety: arising from financial, social and family problems.
  • Poor nutrition: Lack of good nutrition is the principal cause for low birth weight in majority of child births.
  • Inadequate prenatal care: Majority of women face this problem either due to lack of facilities for prenatal care or inability to afford, or ignorance about its importance.
  • Chronic maternal illness: This is a common cause whether the woman is rich or poor. Diseases like tuberculosisdiabetes, high blood pressure and obesity are some of the common reasons.
  • Premature labor: The most common cause for low birth weight.
  • Low birth weight in the mother: The mother herself may be grossly underweight to bear the burden of pregnancy and follow up, leading to underweight birth of the baby.
  • Inadequate Placenta: Placenta is responsible for supply of nutrition to the fetus in the mother’s womb. Obviously inadequate placenta cannot supply sufficient nutrition to the fetus resulting in low birth weight.
  • Genetic disorders: This is where we have no control. Since consanguinity is a major possibility for genetic problems, we can at least avoid consanguineous marriages.
  • Short intervals between pregnancies: If this is the main cause for low birth weight we can certainly stop this menace by adopting sufficient spacing between pregnancies and observing family planning methods.

Preterm labor is one of the major causes of low birth weight babies. What are its causes and risk factors?

Premature labor is a common cause for premature labor which may be defined as the mother having regular contractions and dilatation of the cervix before completion of 37 weeks of pregnancy. This phenomenon could be deliberate attempt by the doctor to initiate labor to avoid maternal or fetal complications based on certain medical emergencies. This may also be due to a spontaneous onset of premature labor.

The commonest causes for premature labor are:

  • Abnormal placenta like placenta previa or some complications in the cervix of the uterus.
  • Genital tract infections which cause premature rupture of membranes (the sac which contains the fluid called liquor amni) which in turn will lead to premature labor.
  • Chronic maternal illnesses like gestational diabetes, sickle cell anemia and severe asthma.

Every pregnant mother should remember the following signs and symptoms which can throw some light on the possibility of premature labor:

  • An increase of vaginal discharge especially a sudden gush of clear watery fluid from the vagina
  • Spotting or bright red blood from the vagina
  • Cramps like the one noticed during menstruation or more than 5 contractions in an hour
  • A feeling of increased pressure with in the pelvis
  • Swelling or puffiness in the face which indicate eclampsia
  • Painful urination which is indicative of an infection in the bladder or kidneys.
  • Acute or continuous vomiting
  • Very intense pelvic pressure indicating an imminent early onset of labor

The common risk factors which can trigger premature labor include:

  • Smoking and drinking particularly during pregnancy.
  • Drug addiction .
  • Inadequate weight gain during in proportion to the weight of the baby
  • Insufficient nutrition
  • Gum infections.
  • Heavy physical labour during pregnancy.
  • Infections in the mother.
  • Hormonal imbalances in the mother.
  • Incompetent cervix or premature cervical effacement and dilatation.
  • Uterine irritability.
  • Extremes of emotional stress
  • Pregnancy before 17 years of age.
  • Pregnancy after the age of 35 yrs.
  • Low educational and socioeconomic standards.
  • Structural abnormalities of uterus like large fibroids.
  • Multiple gestations (like twins or triplets in the womb).
  • History of premature deliveries and
  • Fetal abnormalities.

The list of risk factors indicate the importance of awareness among the pregnant women to make sure the pregnancy is carried to full term(between 38 & 42 weeks) successfully. Even if they envisage such a possibility they are totally unaware of the signs of an impending premature labor. If they can detect this very early they can carry the pregnancy to full term there by averting all the dangers and complications which a premature labor can give rise to.

The only way to reduce this increasing tendency for low birth weight is to be conscious about one’s own health and take timely medical help whenever faced with a medical problem. If you have the slightest doubt that you may give birth to a low birth weight baby, you must address your concern with doctor consultation. Ultrasound examinations as and when required can give you a precise idea about the development of the baby and the womb.

Every woman who is planning a pregnancy or already pregnant should remember and observe the following, to have a healthy baby:

  • Regular prenatal care during the entire period of pregnancy i.e. from conception till delivery.
  • Intake of prenatal vitamins throughout pregnancy with particular emphasis on folic acid which is considered important to reduce chances for premature labor.
  • No one is immune from common medical problems like diabetes, high blood pressure and tuberculosis. One can at least get them cured where possible, or keep them under control with regular check-ups and medications.
  • Avoid all habits which affect the growth of the baby in the womb like smoking, drinking and drugs.
  • As far as possible and feasible try to maintain a balanced nutritious diet during the entire course of pregnancy.
  • Increase few hundred calories to your regular requirement since the additional intake is meant for the child within you.
  • Even if it turns out that your baby is smaller in size your treating doctor can take several steps to improve your baby’s condition.


The only way to prevent premature onset of labor is to be able to recognize it, undergo regular prenatal checkups, follow doctor’s advice, avoid smoking/drinking/drugs if present, clarify all your doubts during visits to your doctor and get prompt investigations done to detect any infections. Taking nutritious diet and keeping active during the period of pregnancy helps to have a healthy pregnancy.

However, it is equally important to realize that not all preterm births can be avoided since all of them may not be due to factors that can be prevented.

As far as possible your doctor will try to avoid a premature labor and advise the following:

  • Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration,
  • Taking adequate bed rest lying on the left side and
  • Avoiding sexual intercourse,
  • Evaluatingthe condition of the fetus in the womb and the health of the mother and tackle those problems.

All said and done, pregnant mothers should remember that, if the mother and/or child are in imminent danger from illness or other problems, the doctor makes sure the child is delivered.

*Disclaimer This is not medical advice. The content is for educational purposes only. Please contact your doctor for any health care issues.