The influential think-tank - which launches its Born Unequal report at Number 11 Downing Street on Wednesday (March 28) - says that the scale of inequalities at birth in Britain are ‘a scar on the national conscience’.
The Fabian report challenges Gordon Brown to address low birth weight as a national health priority, calling for mandatory one-to-one care for babies in neonatal intensive care, and increased financial support in pregnancy for women at most risk of having underweight babies.
Research for Born Unequal found that in 1989, 67 of every 1000 babies were born with low birth weight (less than 5lb8oz) but the proportion rose to 76 by 1999 and 78 by 2006.
“Inequalities at birth in Britain are a stark matter of life and death’ says author Louise Bamfield. “If Britain had the same record on low birth weight as the best countries in Europe, 24,000 babies would have much improved life chances. The facts should shock us all. Britain has the worst rate of every country in western Europe, except Greece. And being born very small creates health risks throughout life – and will affect the health of babies they will themselves have years later.”
Harriet Harman, Constitutional Affairs minister, said: “The Born Unequal report is right to argue that the extent to which chances in life are determined by the circumstances of birth is unacceptable – we must show that we have the confidence to go out and win the public argument about why inequality matters and should be reduced if we are to create a fairer Britain.”
Women who give birth over 40 are also more likely to have a smaller baby. The Fabians, who interviewed groups of new mums for the report, found that older mothers are often unaware of the risks of low birth weight.
Bamfield says this increases the importance of employers to reduce the pressures which lead increasing numbers of women to have babies later in life.
The risk of having a low birth weight baby is much higher for some groups than others. Lone parents are nine times as likely to have a stillbirth as other parents. Babies born to working-class mothers are twice as likely to die before their first birthday as those with middle-class parents.
Mothers of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin have a high risk of having low birth-weight babies; their babies are on average 300g lighter than those of white mothers. These mothers also attend fewer antenatal appointments than other ethnic groups.
Health Minister Caroline Flint will respond to the report on Wednesday March 28’s 11 Downing Street seminar with Ed Balls, the Treasury Minister who is also Chair of the Fabian Society.
Earlier Fabian research on this issue influenced Gordon Brown’s decision last year to start paying child benefit to pregnant women. The think-tank says this was an important first step but will need to be developed into a new national strategy when Brown becomes Prime Minister this summer.
Rachael Jolley | alfa
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