Poverty can impact the growth of unborn babies, with differences in fetal weight detected from as early as 20 weeks into the pregnancy, according to a study led by the University of Aberdeen.
Individuals from the highest household income have increased fetal size in the second and third trimesters and at birth, when compared with those with the lowest income from a variety of nations.
The research, which is the first to find size differences linked to poverty at such an early stage of development, is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Low birth weight is associated with negative health outcomes such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, asthma, ADHD and early death.
The researchers looked at data from over 21 000 individuals from Scotland, England, Saudi Arabia, the USA, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Sweden and France. They examined both antenatal size and birth size and compared the data with household income. Factors such as a mother’s age, whether she smoked, her height and the number of other children were accounted for.
Professor Steve Turner, senior lecturer in child health at the University of Aberdeen and lead author said: ‘What this study shows is that the inequality, as seen by reduced size in fetal life, is present long before birth and this poverty gap widens between twenty weeks gestation and birth.’
He added: ‘Regardless of whether you live in Saudi, the US or Europe, if your parents are poor you will be smaller before birth and at birth compared to if your parents were not poor. This is problematic as small size before and after birth puts an individual at increased risk for many serious illnesses in later life.’
Professor Turner suggested that pregnant mothers from poor households may have difficulty accessing or engaging with antenatal care.
He added: ‘There is a well-recognised health inequality where quality and duration of life are lower among the most poor. This divide is present both within and between countries. We would like to see healthcare providers around the world strive to increase engagement with pregnant mothers living in poverty.’
The authors hope that this study will encourage healthcare providers to recognise the health risks associated with lower income for mothers and their unborn children and to provide more support and guidance to those at risk.
Professor Turner added: ‘This engagement will reward all of society by putting unborn children on a trajectory to a longer and healthier lives.’
This comes after research commissioned by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists from February suggested maternity care in the UK is ‘failing’ to reach pregnant women living in adverse social circumstances.