A baby weighing less than 2.5kg at birth is classified as having a low birth weight. Research suggests that low-birth-weight children have a lower chance of survival and generally of growing healthily into adulthood. Babies born with a low birth weight will also have IQs which are 5% lower on average.
At 32% of children born, Pakistan has the second highest rate of low-birth-weight babies in the world after Mauritania (although there is no data available for some countries, such as Afghanistan). According to the UN’s Child Agency, UNICEF, many low-birth-weight babies are born to women who suffer from poor maternal health and nutrition. Speaking to the news agency IRIN, a senior gynaecologist and obstetrician in Lahore explained “the problem is most common among poorer families” where households frequently have an inadequate diet.
However, nutrition is not the only factor, because Pakistani doctors and nurses also find that low-birth-weight babies are born to women from families with enough food.
Importance of family planning
Experts suggest that another causal factor of low-birth-weight children may be the number of pregnancies a woman has and the spacing between them. With poor access to family planning services – less than a third of Pakistani women use contraceptives – many mothers become pregnant quickly following a previous birth. Too many pregnancies in a short space of time can impact negatively on a woman’s health and lead to a higher risk of stillbirths and infant deaths.
For low-birth-weight children who do survive, the chances of growing normally are greatly reduced. Stunting rates are high in Pakistan, with nearly 44% of under-fives too low in height for their age and around 15% of children wasted or severely underweight for their height (according to the World Health Organisation).
One doctor who works in the town of Jaranwala, in the Punjab, expressed his concern that even in farming areas, the quality of food given to children, “with more packaged, processed items” is declining. This increasingly poor diet could also be affecting more mothers, who are then likely to produce low-birth-weight babies and malnourished children. The doctor warns that without greater awareness about nutrition, as well as better family planning and general health services for women and children in Pakistan, the situation may only get worse in the future.