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New Study Shows Effects of Health and Nutrition on Fetal Growth and Newborn Size

A new study by the INTERGROWTH-21st Project proves that the health and nutritional status of an expecting woman, and not their race or ethnicity, influences fetal growth and newborn size. This challenges earlier misconceptions that a baby’s country of birth or their race influences their growth and development.

The study reveals that the educational background, type of nutrition, environmental effects, and the health care an expecting woman receives shape fetal grown and newborn size.  Results from the study indicated that babies born to healthy mothers are surprisingly similar worldwide.

The study also shows that the fetal growth and birth length are similar when babies are born to well-nourished, well-educated mothers, despite their diverse ethnic and genetic backgrounds. The reverse of this is equally true: when expecting women are not educated and are unhealthy with poor nutritional care, the growth of the womb and newborn size is poor.

Funded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and carried out by researchers from Oxford University, this research intended to assess fetal growth and newborn size variations in 60,000 pregnancies from urban populations of eight countries that included Kenya, Italy, the UK, USA, Oman, Brazil, India and China. Participants in the study were provided with adequate antenatal care, health and the fulfillment of all nutrition needs.

The research involved using the same ultrasound machines and methods of measurement to monitor bone growth in fetuses in in the wombs of women with the same educational, nutritional status and health background. Other forms of research carried out included measuring the length and head circumference of all the babies at birth.

According to the report summary, fetal growth and newborn length are similar across diverse geographical settings when mothers’ nutritional and health needs are met, and environmental constraints on growth are low. Below are a few key findings:

  • Improving the education, health, and nutrition of mothers everywhere will boost the health of their babies.
  • Babies' bone growth in the womb and their length and head circumference at birth are strikingly similar the world over – when babies are born to educated, healthy and well-nourished mothers.
  • Overall, no more than 4% of the total difference in fetal growth and birth size could be attributed to differences between the eight populations in the study.
  • Results are in complete agreement with the previous WHO study using the same methodology from birth to 5 years of age.

The results of this study also provide a basis to create international standards for growth from conception to birth, which can be adapted by international neonatal and maternal programs and standards. This study has been published in the The Lancet and the Diabetes & Endocrinology journals.

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