Low Birth Weight
The Low Birth Weight Clinic at Children’s Medical Center provides comprehensive medical and psychosocial care to the smallest, most vulnerable patients in the region.
Why Children's Health℠?
The Low Birth Weight Clinic—which operates through the At Risk Children (ARCH) Center at Children’s—is unique in the state, offering comprehensive primary care to very low birth weight infants through intensive intervention, education, social services and developmental testing for premature infants from birth to age 3. The center acts as a medical home for infants with extreme prematurity or low birth weight and provides medical care, social support, advocacy, and education.
The Low Birth Weight Clinic works closely with Parkland Memorial Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit to identify and provide thorough care to infants whose special needs would best be fulfilled in a specialized clinic. It provides primary care for high-risk infants born at Parkland Memorial Hospital with severe prematurity—those born weighing less than 3 pounds 5 ounces, and for those with low birth weight of less than 5 pounds 8 ounces who have one or more coexisting conditions such as:
- Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (characterized by scarring or inflammation of the lungs)
- Intraventricular hemorrhage grades 3 and 4 (bleeding in the fluid-filled areas of the brain)
- Cystic periventricular leucomalacia (a brain injury)
- Necrotizing enterocolitis requiring resection (a serious intestinal disease)
What is Low Birth Weight?
The average infant weighs roughly eight pounds at birth. More than 8% of all newborns in the United States, however, weigh less than 5 pounds 8 ounces. The rate of low birth weight is rising, in large part as a result of an increase in the number of multiple birth babies, who typically are born prematurely and weigh less.
Babies with low birth weight may look significantly different than babies born with a normal weight. They appear to be much smaller and thinner, and their heads may seem disproportionately large compared with their bodies.
Problems with the baby’s condition, the mother’s health, or the placenta may also cause low birth weight, even when a baby is carried to term (37 to 41 weeks). This is known as intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR). Infants born prematurely with IUGR may be very small and physically mature, while those born at full term may be physically mature but weak.
The leading cause of low birth weight is premature delivery. A great deal of a baby’s weight is gained in the last part of the mother’s pregnancy, so when delivery takes place sooner than expected, the baby has less time to grow and gain weight while in the uterus.
Diagnosis & Treatment
A baby’s birth weight can be gauged during pregnancy in a variety of ways, including ultrasound (a test that uses sound waves to create an image of the internal structures of the body). Babies are weighed soon after birth. A baby who weighs less than 5 pounds 8 ounces is considered low birth weight, while an infant weighing less than 3 pounds 5 ounces is considered very low birth weight.
Most low birth weight babies will need specialized treatment in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) until they are able to gain weight. They may need to be placed in temperature controlled beds; receive special feedings, sometimes through a tube in the stomach or through an intravenous line; and be treated for any existing complications. After treatment and without complications, low birth weight babies are typically able to gain weight and grow.
Early comprehensive care for low birth weight is vital because smaller babies are weaker and will have difficulty eating, gaining weight, staying warm enough, and warding off infection. All of these problems contribute to greater risk for complications, including breathing problems such as respiratory distress syndrome; neurologic problems such as intraventricular hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain); gastrointestinal disorders, including serious conditions such as necrotizing enterocolitis; and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Other risk factors increase the likelihood of a baby having low birth weight. Babies born to teenage mothers, particularly those younger than 15, are at much greater risk, and African-American babies have twice the risk of white babies. And because multiple birth babies tend to be born early, they are at increased risk. More than half have low birth weight. Maternal health is also a factor. Poorer pregnancy nutrition, inadequate prenatal care, and the mother’s use of alcohol, cigarettes, and recreational drugs may all contribute to low birth weight.
Children’s has the resources both to evaluate and care for low birth weight infants and to provide the best prenatal care and education to help prevent preterm birth and thus reduce the risk.