What is a Low Birth Weight Baby?

What to Expect With Your Low Birth Weight Baby

A NICU nurse caring for a low birthweight baby in an incubator.
Low birth weight babies may have trouble staying warm. Image © David Joel / Getty Images

Low birth weight (LBW) is the medical classification for a baby who weighs less than 2500 grams—or 5 lbs 5 oz—at birth. While it may be scarier to care for a baby born at a low birth weight, there aren't many differences in your day-to-day care of your newborn. However, family members of a low birth rate baby need to be extra vigilant to ensure the child stays healthy. 

Three Types of Low Birth Weight Baby

Whether your baby was born premature or at term, they can be classified as LBW.

A low birth weight baby will fall into one of 3 categories:

  • Low birth weight (LBW): A LBW baby weighs less than 2500 grams, or 5 lbs 5 oz.
  • Very low birth weight (VLBW): A VLBW baby weighs less than 1500 grams, or about 3 lb 9 oz.
  • Extremely low birth weight (ELBW): An ELBW baby weighs less than 1000 grams, or about 2 lb 3 oz.

What Causes Low Birth Weight?

Babies are born small for 2 main reasons: they were born early or they were born on time but didn't grow enough during pregnancy (called intrauterine growth restriction, or IUGR). There are many specific causes of low birth weight, including prematurity, Preeclampsia, or other problems with the pregnancy, smoking or substance abuse, multiple birth (twins or more), poor pregnancy nutrition, infection in the mom or baby prior to birth, including cytomegalovirus (CMV), toxoplasmosis, chickenpox, and rubella.

How Does Low Birth Weight Affect Me and My Baby?

Many people think that having a baby that's born on time and just small, or a baby who's just a little early, won't cause the baby any problems.

The fact is that most low birth weight babies do just fine, and have few (if any) problems caused by their small sizes. However, there are some exceptions. Here are problems low birth weight babies may experience:

  • Issues with internal organ function: Babies born prematurely may have complications of prematurity that includes problems with the function of their brain, heart, lungs, intestines, and more.
  • Problems with blood sugar: Very small babies may have trouble regulating their blood sugar. Late preterm babies sometimes use sugar faster than they can replace it, and can easily develop dangerously low blood sugars.
  • Problems staying warm: Small babies don't have enough fat to keep them warm. If they can't stay warm on their own, they may have to spend time in an incubator.
  • Trouble eating: Smaller babies aren't always strong enough to breastfeed or bottle feed well, and may need help taking in enough calories to grow.

Watching for Complications in Your Low Birth Weight Baby

While you cannot control the nature and severity of your baby's weight on their health, you can be watchful for complications. Premature babies are typically monitored more regularly than normal weight babies. Expect to be extra careful if your low weight baby has trouble feeding, keeping warm, or shows signs of infection. As they grow older, studies show they may be more prone to health conditions, including asthma, vision problems, and fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

The bright side? Research from the longest running study of premature infants, shows they are exceptionally resilient and may have an increased drive to succeed. What's more, parents who show more concern and advocacy for their well-being in school and social settings turn out with children who become more successful academically, socially, and physically.

Sources

March of Dimes Online. Medical Resources: Low Birthweight.

Lucile Packard's Children's Hospital at Stanford Online. "Very Low Birthweight" Retrieved January 2016.

UCSF Children's Hospital. Intensive Care Nursery House Staff Manual. "Very Low and Extremely Low Birthweight Infants" Retrieved January 2016.

Sullivan, Mary C.; Zigler, Jim. URI College of Nursing study finds effects of premature birth can reach into adulthood. University of Rhode Island Press Release. September 2011.

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