Very low birth weight is a term used to describe babies who are born weighing less than 3 pounds, 4 ounces. It is very rare that babies are born this tiny. But the overall rate of very-low-birth-weight babies in the U.S. is going up. This is because more multiple birth babies are being born. Multiples are more likely to be born early and weigh less.
The main cause of a very-low-birth-weight baby is premature birth. Premature means born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Very-low-birth-weight babies are often born before 30 weeks of pregnancy. A premature baby has less time in the mother’s womb to grow and gain weight. Much of a baby's weight is gained during the latter part of pregnancy.
Another cause of very low birth weight is intrauterine growth restriction. This happens when a baby does not grow well during pregnancy. It may be because of problems with the placenta, the mother's health, or birth defects. Most very-low-birth-weight babies who have intrauterine growth restriction are also born early. They are usually very small and physically immature.
A baby is more likely to be very low birth weight if he or she is premature or has intrauterine growth restriction. Other things that increase the risk are tied to the mother. They include:
Babies with very low birth weight look much smaller than other babies of normal birth weight. A very-low-birth-weight baby has a head that usually looks bigger than the rest of his or her body. A very-low-birth-weight baby often looks very thin with little body fat. Blood vessels can be easily seen through the skin.
One of the main reasons for regular prenatal exams is to make sure your unborn baby is growing well. During pregnancy, the size of your baby is figured out in different ways. Your steady weight gain is one way of checking on the baby’s growth.
Another way is to measure the top of your uterus from the pubic bone. The number of centimeters measured is usually the same or close to the number of weeks of pregnancy. If the fundus measurement is low for the number of weeks, it may mean that your baby is not growing well.
Other ways to check the baby’s growth are:
A birth weight of less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces is diagnosed as low birth weight. Babies weighing less than 3 pounds, 4 ounces at birth are considered very low birth weight.
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is. Very-low-birth-weight babies may need:
The outcome for a very-low-birth-weight baby depends largely on how much the baby weighs at birth. The smallest babies have the most problems and are less likely to survive.
Very-low-birth-weight babies may have a harder time "catching up" in physical growth because they often have other complications. Many very-low-birth-weight babies are referred to special follow-up healthcare programs.
Babies with a very low birth weight have increased risk of developing complications. Their tiny bodies are not as strong as babies of normal weight. They may have a harder time eating, gaining weight, and fighting infection. Because they have so little body fat, they often have trouble staying warm in normal temperatures.
Many babies with a very low birth weight are also premature. This can make it difficult to separate the problems caused by the prematurity from the problems of just being so tiny. In general, the lower the baby's birth weight, the greater the risks for complications. Here are some of the most common problems of very-low-birth-weight babies:
Almost all very-low-birth-weight babies need special care in the NICU until they can gain weight and are well enough to go home.
Risks for long-term complications and disability are increased for babies with very low birth weight. Long-term complications may include:
Talk with your baby's healthcare provider about your baby’s risks for complications.
Because of advances in the care of sick and premature babies, more babies are surviving even though they are born early and very small. But preventing preterm births is one of the best ways to prevent very low birth weight.
Regular prenatal care is the best way to prevent preterm births and very-low-birth-weight babies. At prenatal visits, the health of you and your unborn baby are checked. It is important to:
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
Crestwood Medical Center
One Hospital Drive
Huntsville, AL 35801