News article

Mother's Health During Pregnancy, Nutrition Impacts Newborn Baby Size

Posted:  Thursday, July 10, 2014

Studies show that poor nutrition and health cause disparities in fetal growth and development and not race or ethnicity. Babies’ growth in the womb and their size at birth, especially their length, are strikingly similar the world over, when babies are born to healthy, well-educated and well-nourished mothers.

It has been earlier suggested that race and ethnicity were the two most vital factors in determining the size of a baby at birth. A major study led by researchers at Oxford University in the UK, and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, suggests that the varying levels of nutrition and health have a bigger influence on foetal growth and new-born size.

‘Currently we are not all equal at birth. But we can be,’ said the lead author professor Jose Villar of the Nuffield Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, University of Oxford, Britain.

‘We can create a similar start for all by making sure mothers are well educated and nourished, by treating infection and by providing adequate antenatal care,’ he added. ‘Do not say that women in some parts of the world have small children because they are predestined to do so. It is simply not true,’ Villar noted.

"This is very confusing for doctors and mothers and makes no biological sense. How can a foetus or a new-born be judged small in one clinic or hospital and treated accordingly, only for the mother to go to another city or country, and be told that her baby is growing normally," said Professor Stephen Kennedy, University of Oxford, one of the senior authors of the paper.

The research included almost 60,000 pregnancies in eight defined urban areas in India, China, Brazil, Italy, Kenya, Oman, the United States and Britain.

The women participating in the study had ultrasounds beginning in early pregnancy until they delivered to measure the growth of their babies. The same equipment and methods were used in all eight countries. Once the babies were born, their length and head circumference were also measured.

Mothers with similar levels of education, health, nutrition and care during pregnancy had babies with very similar bone growth in the womb and similar length and head circumference at birth, the study revealed.

The researchers surmised that improving the education, health and nutrition of women around the world will also improve the health of their babies.

The study aims at constructing new international standards clearly describing the optimal growth of the baby in the womb as well as a new-born.

In 2010, an estimated 32.4 million babies were born undernourished in low-to-middle-income countries, representing 27% of all live births globally.

Small size at birth is associated with infant death and illness, as well as increased risks of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease in adult life.

Currently foetal growth and the size of new-borns are evaluated in clinics around the world using at least 100 different growth charts.

"Having international standards of optimal growth from conception to 5 years of age that everyone in the world can use means it will now be possible to evaluate improvements in health and nutrition using the same yardstick."