India leads in low birth weight newborns. Credit: Kottakkalnet/CC BY SA 4.0

Babies born in India during the COVID-19 pandemic weighed 11 grams less than children born before it, increasing the odds of low birth weight (LBW) during the global public health emergency1.

Newborns in India have the highest incidence of LBW — weighing less than 2,500 grams. The pandemic worsened risk factors, such as a rise in home births.

Economists at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, and University of Hawaii, Honolulu, in the United States analysed data on 204,615 children, including from the fifth National Family Health Survey, a repository of information on population, health, and nutritional outcomes for each district.

They grouped children born between April 2020 and April 2021 in the pandemic cohort (8%) while the rest were in the pre-pandemic group. The study used statistical models to compare birth weights and LBW incidence in the pre-pandemic and pandemic cohorts.

Findings revealed that babies born during the pandemic faced a higher risk of being underweight compared with those born before April 2020. The LBW prevalence rate is 20% in the pandemic cohort and 17% in the pre-pandemic cohort.

Infection of pregnant mothers, stress of the pandemic and its economic disruptions could have negatively affected their health. Lockdowns and social distancing may have caused additional stress for households. The disruption of maternal and neonatal services may have played a role indirectly.

The research highlights the need for targeted policies to reduce the risk of LBW during high COVID-19 infection periods, especially for vulnerable populations in low and middle-income countries.