Journal Issue: Low Birth Weight Volume 5 Number 1 Spring 1995
Advances in neonatal medicine have resulted in the increased survival of infants at lower and lower birth weight. While these medical success stories highlight the power of medical technology to save many of the tiniest infants at birth, serious questions remain about how these infants will develop and whether they will have normal, productive lives.
Low birth weight children can be born at term or before term and have varying degrees of social and medical risk. Because low birth weight children are not a homogeneous group, they have a broad spectrum of growth, health, and developmental outcomes. While the vast majority of low birth weight children have normal outcomes, as a group they generally have higher rates of subnormal growth, illnesses, and neurodevelopmental problems. These problems increase as the child's birth weight decreases. With the exception of a small minority of low birth weight children with mental retardation and/or cerebral palsy, the developmental sequelae for most low birth weight infants include mild problems in cognition, attention, and neuromotor functioning. Long-term follow-up studies conducted on children born in the 1960s indicated that the adverse consequences of being born low birth weight were still apparent in adolescence.
Adverse sociodemographic factors negatively affect developmental outcomes across the continuum of low birth weight and appear to have far greater effects on long-term cognitive outcomes than most of the biological risk factors. In addition, the cognitive defects associated with social or environmental risks become more pronounced as the child ages. Enrichment programs for low birth weight children seem to be most effective for the moderately low birth weight child who comes from a lower socioeconomic group.
Continued research and attempts to decrease the rate of low birth weight and associated perinatal medical sequelae are of primary importance. Ongoing documentation of the long-term outcome of low birth weight children needs to be mandated, as does the implementation of environmental enrichment programs to help ameliorate the long-term consequences for infants who are born low birth weight.