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Want a Healthy Newborn? Change Neighborhoods

Photograph by Twenty20

Three of the most important factors for a healthy pregnancy and baby? Location, location, location—especially concerning crime levels.

A broad demographic study found a strong link between the crime levels of the neighborhood where a pregnant woman lives and a baby's birth weight and length of gestation, or premature birth. Moms living in areas with the highest crime rates gave birth to babies that were, on average, 3.2 ounces (90 grams) smaller than babies born at the other end of the chart—areas with the lowest crime rates. Those born in the high crime areas were 119 percent more likely to be officially designated as low birthweight, compared to the babies who came into the world with the lowest rates of crime.

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University of Edinburgh researchers Tom Clemens and Chris Dibben published their findings, “Living in Stressful Neighborhoods During Pregnancy: An Observational Study of Crime Rates and Birth Outcomes,” in The European Journal of Public Health, 2016. The pair used census data from 6,505 postal codes in Scotland and the health profiles of singletons (non-twins) born between 1994 and 2008. They also gathered crime data—violence, theft, vandalism and drug-realted crimes from local police departments.

Problems with fetal development, low birthweight and premature birth can lead to lifelong challenges and can often require additional resources for support and education.

What they found was that, even correcting for income, the mothers' education levels, marital status, smoking in the home and pollution levels in the area, neighborhood crime levels and low birthweight were strongly associated—62 grams on average lower than babies who lived in neighborhoods less plagued by crime. Living in a high crime area was also assoiciated with an increased risk of premature birth.

Stress has long been known to impact a newborn's birthweight. But unlike one-off, even very stressful incidents, such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks, stress levels associated with living near crime is presistent and chronic. It's the latter type of stress that has the greatest impact on fetal health—even more so than pollution, smoking and ethnicity—including low birthweight and slower fetal development.

Problems with fetal development, low birthweight and premature birth can lead to lifelong challenges and can often require additional resources for support and education.

RELATED: Facts on Premature Births

The authors concluded that crime level where a pregnant woman lives likely increased the degree of threat the women feel and raise her stress levels and that stress levels are important in determining the risks of giving birth prematurely or to a low weight baby.

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