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Better from Birth

A quick exploration of data from Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Book finds that California has a serious problem not only in terms of overall child health (falling six spots to rank 29th in the country), but also in terms of low weight births. In fact, 6.8 percent of all births in California are low weight (less than 5.5 pounds at birth), a rate that has been slowly increasing since the early 1990s.

Why is it so important?

Low birth weight affects 1 in 12 babies born today, and is a critical indicator of child development and public health. Being born underweight is associated with an increased risk of early health complications like sudden infant death syndrome, breathing problems, and difficulty feeding and gaining weight. These early complications put low birth weight babies instantly at a greater disadvantage than their average weight counterparts.

On top of that, low birth weight babies are at a much greater risk for chronic health diseases such as obesity, and recent studies have also linked low birth weight to autism.

In addition to presenting a greater risk for health complications from the beginning of life, low birth weight can negatively affect a child’s brain development in later years, including the ability to concentrate and thrive academically in school.

Today, United Health Foundation’s annual health rankings puts California at 9th in the nation, with 34,641 underweight children born each year. While it is encouraging that the state is below the national average of 8.1 percent, disparities surface when this trend is broken down by factors like race, class, and geography.

For example, over 1 in 10 African Americans in California are born underweight, which nearly doubles the state average. 

According to the data from the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health, low birth weights also vary dramatically from county to county. For instance, San Luis Obispo reports the lowest underweight birth rate at 4.9 percent, while neighbor Kern County reports a rate of 7 percent.

California’s own Department of Public Health and the state’s Environmental Health Tracking Program show how maternal age, race, and income all impact low birth weight rates in Alameda County. Women with a median household income less than $27,000 are two times more likely to give birth to a low birth weight baby than women with a median household income of $75,000-100,000.

This county to county comparison illustrates how “demographic and behavioral factors can increase the risk of delivering preterm, including low socioeconomic status, being under age 17 or over age 35, inadequate prenatal care, and smoking during pregnancy.”

Potential Solutions to Combat Low Birth Weight

Yet the science on low birth weight children and the experiences of their mothers can inform efforts to lower the number of children who fall into this category.

For example, earlier and increased access to prenatal care and nutrition are two key areas that can improve maternal and child outcomes.

Access to prenatal health care ranges from periodic visits with a doctor to advice on proper nutrition and folic acid supplementation. The data shows that mothers who do not receive prenatal care are three times more likely to bear a baby with a low birth weight and five times more likely to have a newborn death.

National efforts such as the newly launched evidence based model, “Expect with Me” ,led by Yale’s School of Public Health and funded by the United Health Foundation ,work to improve birth outcomes through the promotion of group care. These programs work to integrate three major facets of care—health assessment, education, and support—by bringing together a group of expecting women to engage in discussions about prenatal health and healthy pregnancies.

California is also working to create healthier birth outcomes through group care and quality improvement toolkits at 12 hospitals around the state. With a $1 million grant from WellPoint Foundation to March of Dimes, prenatal health care was provided to women through the group care CenteringPregnancy® program.  

Efforts such as these with group prenatal care have been shown to have a 33% reduction of risk in preterm births, bringing us one step closer to healthier children with healthier lives.

For more tips and information on how the best news, science, and research can help parents, businesses, and communities develop the best environment for kids, sign up for alerts from Too Small to Fail, an initiative of Next Generation and the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

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