What's Wrong With All Those Little Newborns?

04/15/2015 02:22 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015
FRED DUFOUR via Getty Images


The future of South Korea’s youth looks bright. Surrounded by a top technology industry, rising educational levels and improving health care access, young people are in a good place. However, there is one trend that looks like it could hinder the country’s growth in an alarming — and literal — way. A 2013 Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare report found that

about 5.5 percent of all babies in South Korea are born underweight.

What’s that look like? Below 5.5 pounds, babies are underweight, and below 3.3 pounds, it’s severe. According to the Ministry and University of Illinois neonatal professor Chang Gi Park, that is double the figure of 20 years ago. And Korea’s not the only country producing underweight infants. As of 2010, Australia was also at 6 percent; Argentina, 7 percent; Japan, 9.6 percent. All these tiny babies should be setting off international alarms, right? Low birth weight can cause long-term risks, including congenital issues or higher infection risks.

It’s a little more complicated than that, though. First off, a baby’s health primarily depends on its environment. “In some ways, low birth weight is not a bad thing,” says Dr. Carol Miller, a neonatologist at the University of California, San Francisco. If a baby lives in a safe home with a healthy mother and receives quality care, the child will likely be fine. The CDC agrees, saying the first 28 days of a child’s life are among the most critical for long-term health — which is more about the home where the stork paid a visit than the size of the package it dropped off. Take the mother’s economic and cultural position: Positive mental health, enough money coming in, and solid support from a gynecologic, prenatal and birthing standpoint will help most any woman raise a healthy child.

Delete all the aforementioned resources and it’s a whole other story. A mother in a developing nation who can’t breast-feed because of malnutrition? A teen who grew up poor, and also smokes, and has now been kicked out of the house for getting pregnant? The underweight babies of those moms are far less likely to grow past their size challenges. But if conditions are decent, clocking in under ideal weight doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the smallest humans.

These days, low birth weight can actually be an indicator of overall national economic health. Miller says birth-weight rates have fallen globally in the past two decades — not because of some plague afflicting infants, but rather because of better health resources, including in the United States. In countries with stable economies, for instance, older women using reproductive technology cause part of the birth weight drop. Extra hormones cause an increased number of multiple births and smaller babies needing mom’s nutrients. So the next time you see an XS infant, hold the pity — its passport may be from a better-off country than yours.

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