COVID-19 pandemic tied to low birth weight for infants in India, study shows

The incidence of low birth weight rose sharply in India amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research from the University of Notre Dame.

Globally, 1 in 4 newborns has a low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds), and the problem disproportionately affects low- and middle-income countries — particularly in South Asia, home to approximately one-fourth of the world’s population.

Santosh Kumar, associate professor of development and global health economics at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, co-authored the study published in Communications Medicine, a Nature series journal.

“This research shows that low birth weight became more common in India during the pandemic,” Kumar said. “We saw the exacerbation of a global health problem that affects educational outcomes and poverty rates.

“Children who have lower birth weight as infants often go on to struggle with school, and this limits their capacity to develop what economists often call ‘human capital’ — the key knowledge and skills that will affect their ability to earn a good living and support themselves and their families.”

The study found that babies born between April 2020 and April 2021 had lower birth weights than previous birth cohorts (those born before the pandemic), Kumar said. Researchers analyzed data from more than 200,000 infants, Kumar said, including a pandemic cohort that included almost 12,000 infants and a pre-pandemic cohort of approximately 192,000.

The prevalence of low birth weight was 20 percent in the pandemic group, up from 17 percent in the pre-pandemic group, Kumar said, and infants in the pandemic group weighed about four-tenths of an ounce less than those in the pre-pandemic group.

Multiple factors related to the pandemic may have affected the health behaviors of pregnant women and contributed to lower birth weights, Kumar said, including the SARS-CoV-2 virus, stress related to social distancing, economic upheaval and the disruption of maternal and neonatal care.

Santosh Kumar's research explores the intersection of global health and poverty reduction.
Santosh Kumar’s research explores the intersection of global health and poverty reduction.

The study’s co-authors were Clare Hill, a Notre Dame undergraduate student majoring in political science and global affairs with a minor in data science, and Timothy J. Halliday, an economist at the University of Hawaii. The study received funding from the Keough School’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies.

Kumar said this latest research, which expands on his work at the intersection of poverty and global health, highlights the need for targeted policies that reduce the incidence of low birth weights — for instance, ensuring that women from low-income populations have adequate nutrients and caloric intake during pregnancy and also have access to quality prenatal care.

“Our research underscores the need for targeted policies to reduce the risk of low birth weight,” Kumar said. “This will help create greater educational and economic opportunity and, ultimately, reduce poverty.”

Top photo: A mother and her newborn child are pictured in Odisha, India. Photo by Pippa Ranger via Flickr.

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