Low birth weight (LBW) is defined by the World Health Organization as a birth weight of a infant of 2,499 g or less, regardless of gestational age. Subcategories include very low birth weight (VLBW), which is less than 1500 g (3 pounds 5 ounces), and extremely low birth weight (ELBW), which is less than 1000 g (2 pounds 3 ounces). Normal weight at term delivery is 2500-4200 g (5 pounds 8 ounces - 9 pounds 4 ounces).
LBW is either caused by preterm birth (that is, a low gestational age at birth, commonly defined as younger than 37 weeks of gestation) or the infant being small for gestational age (that is, a slow prenatal growth rate), or a combination of both.
In general, risk factors in the mother that may contribute to low birth weight include young ages, multiple pregnancies, previous LBW infants, poor nutrition, heart disease or hypertension, untreated coeliac disease, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and insufficient prenatal care. Environmental risk factors include smoking, lead exposure, and other types of air pollutions.
Four different pathways have been identified that can result in preterm birth and have considerable evidence: precocious fetal endocrine activation, uterine overdistension, decidual bleeding, and intrauterine inflammation/infection. From a practical point a number of factors have been identified that are associated with preterm birth, however, an association does not establish causality.
Being small for gestational age can be constitutional, that is, without an underlying pathological cause, or it can be secondary to intrauterine growth restriction, which, in turn, can be secondary to many possible factors. For example, babies with congenital anomalies or chromosomal abnormalities are often associated with LBW. Problems with the placenta can prevent it from providing adequate oxygen and nutrients to the fetus. Infections during pregnancy that affect the fetus, such as rubella, cytomegalovirus, toxoplasmosis, and syphilis, may also affect the baby's weight.
While active maternal tobacco smoking has well established adverse perinatal outcomes such as LBW, that mothers who smoke during pregnancy are twice as likely to give birth to low-birth weight infants. Review on the effects of passive maternal smoking, also called environmental tobacco exposure (ETS), demonstrated that increased risks of infants with LBW were more likely to be expected in ETS-exposed mothers.
Regarding environmental toxins in pregnancy, elevated blood lead levels in pregnant women, even those well below 10 ug/dL can cause miscarriage, premature birth, and LBW in the offspring. With 10 ug/dL as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "level of concern", this cut-off value really needs to arise more attentions and implementations in the future.
The combustion products of solid fuel in developing countries can cause many adverse health issues in people. Because a majority of pregnant women in developing countries, where rate of LBW is high, are heavily exposed to indoor air pollution, increased relative risk translates into substantial population attributable risk of 21% of LBW.
One environmental exposure which has been found to increase the risk of low birth weight is particulate matter, a component of ambient air pollution. Because particulate matter is composed of extremely small particles, even nonvisible levels can be inhaled and present harm to the fetus. Particulate matter exposure can cause inflammation, oxidative stress, endocrine disruption, and impaired oxygen transport access to the placenta, all of which are mechanisms for heightening the risk of low birth weight. To reduce exposure to particulate matter, pregnant women can monitor the EPA's Air Quality Index and take personal precautionary measures such as reducing outdoor activity on low quality days, avoiding high-traffic roads/intersections, and/or wearing personal protective equipment (i.e., facial mask of industrial design). Indoor exposure to particulate matter can also be reduced through adequate ventilation, as well as use of clean heating and cooking methods.
A correlation between maternal exposure to CO and low birth weight has been reported that the effect on birth weight of increased ambient CO was as large as the effect of the mother smoking a pack of cigarettes per day during pregnancy. It has been revealed that adverse reproductive effects (e.g., risk for LBW) were correlated with maternal exposure to air pollution combustion emissions in Eastern Europe and North America. Mercury is a known toxic heavy metal that can harm fetal growth and health, and there has been evidence showing that exposure to mercury (via consumption of large oily fish) during pregnancy may be related to higher risks of LBW in the offspring.
It was revealed that, exposure of pregnant women to airplane noise was found to be associated with low birth weight. Aircraft noise exposure caused adverse effects on fetal growth leading to low birth weight and preterm infants.
LBW is closely associated with fetal and Perinatal mortality and Morbidity, inhibited growth and cognitive development, and chronic diseases later in life. At the population level, the proportion of babies with a LBW is an indicator of a multifaceted public-health problem that includes long-term maternal malnutrition, ill health, hard work and poor health care in pregnancy. On an individual basis, LBW is an important predictor of newborn health and survival and is associated with higher risk of infant and childhood mortality.
Low birth weight constitutes as sixty to eighty percent of the infant mortality rate in developing countries. Infant mortality due to low birth weight is usually directly causal, stemming from other medical complications such as preterm birth, poor maternal nutritional status, lack of prenatal care, maternal sickness during pregnancy, and an unhygienic home environment. According to an analysis by University of Oregon, reduced brain volume in children is also tied to low birth-weight.
A study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) found that of the 3.8 million births that occurred in the United States in 2011, approximately 6.1% (231,900) were diagnosed with low birth weight (<2,500 g). Approximately 49,300 newborns (1.3%) weighed less than 1,500 grams (VLBW). Infants born at low birth weight are at a higher risk for developing neonatal infection.