Some babies are born too small for their gestation period. This is known as intrauterine growth retardation and is characterized by low birthweight. Size is not everything, however, and this may not matter as long as good nourishment in early life lets your baby catch up in the physical sense. What does matter, however, is how his brain was nourished in the womb. It is brain growth that is significant for his future potential.
Your baby responds to lack of oxygen or glucose by increasing blood supply to protect his brain at the expense of his other organs. He may therefore be undersized but still have a brain that was well protected. The outcome is not always poor. The figures quoted in the following studies are average outcomes -some will do better.
Babies born at optimum birthweights (3.5 – 4.5 kg/7 lb 12 oz – 9 lb 15 oz) have the lowest risk of developmental disorders such as those of the central nervous system. Average intelligence seems to increase up to a birthweight of around 4.2 kg (9 lb 4 oz), where¬after it slightly decreases. Unfortunately, however, those born with low birthweight have a higher risk of physical or mental handicap, with up to 8 per cent suffering severe disorders such as:
- cerebral palsy
- mental retardation
- faulty development of the lungs
A study of babies born weighing less than 1.75 kg (3 lb 14 oz) found that, 4 years later, of the survivors sadly 16 per cent were severely disabled, 47 per cent had cerebral palsy, 11 per cent were deaf and 7 per cent blind. Their performance in school was generally poor and was found to correlate to their weight at birth.
Studies have shown a significant relationship between size of a baby at birth and maternal diet at or around the time of conception. These first few weeks of gestation are a time of rapid division of cells. The central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) are often fully developed before the pregnancy is even recognized. Babies of teenage mothers are particularly at risk. Studies show their diets are low in iron, calcium, vitamin A and riboflavin (vitamin B, particularly if they’re trying to lose weight with inappropriate slimming diets.
Studies comparing babies born with a low birthweight with babies born at a healthy weight show the lower birthweight babies are more likely to have a lower intelligence when language, spatial, fine motor, touch and attention skills are tested at 6 and 13 years of age. Performance was found to improve as birthweight increased to well over 3 kg (6 lb 10 oz). Half of babies born weighing less than 1.5 kg (3 lb 5 oz) had special edu¬cational needs and language problems.
Other studies that compared low birthweight babies with adult intelligence found an increase in average IQ of at least 10 IQ points between those who were born weighing less than 2.5 kg (5 1/2 lb) and those weighing more. The risk of mental retarda¬tion is 2.8 times greater for low birthweight babies than those of normal birthweight.
The good news, however, is that early intervention and stimulation of these children during the first 3 years of life can improve their performance by around 4 IQ points, especially for babies born weighing 2 – 2.5 kg.
New research also suggests that low birthweight babies are more likely to develop high blood pressure, coronary heart dis¬ease, stroke and insulin-dependent diabetes in later life. In fact, low birthweight quadruples the risk of heart disease in later life compared with larger babies.
To reduce the risk of low birthweight:
- Stop smoking – ideally before you become pregnant – or at least cut down as much as possible.
- Avoid alcohol as much as possible, especially during the first 3 months of pregnancy.
- Have your dental health checked and any gum disease treated – preferably before you become pregnant.
- Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and oily fish.
- Consider taking supplements of essential fatty acids designed for pregnancy.
- Consider taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement designed for pregnancy.
- Increase your intake of garlic and possibly take garlic powder tablets, especially if you have a family history of pre-eclampsia (pregnancy-associated high blood pressure).
- Take gentle exercise.
- Take time for regular relaxation sessions.
- Reduce your exposure to excess stress.
- Have a sexual health check-up – preferably before becoming pregnant – to rule out infections and bacterial imbalances (such as bacterial vaginosis) linked with an increased risk of miscarriage and preterm delivery.
- Decrease your exposure to environmental toxins.