Global warming: early births and infant health at risk

Women are at risk of giving birth earlier due to warmer temperatures brought on by the climate crisis, according to a new study. And future infants will suffer.

The climate crisis will profoundly affect the health of every child alive today, according to a report. The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that on days when temperatures exceed 32.2°, birth rates increase by 5%. Birth rates are also higher the next day, possibly because labor and delivery continued the day after a hot day, the study suggests. After temperatures drop, birth rates decline.

A 5% increase may not seem like much, but the authors estimate that over a 20-year period, an average of 25,000 infants per year are born earlier in the United States due to warm temperatures. This equates to a loss of more than 150,000 gestational days per year in the United States from 1969 to 1988. Researchers believe this is likely an undercount. The average reduction in gestational length is around 6.1 days, but in some cases babies are born up to two weeks earlier.

Babies born too early: higher risk of diseases

Previous studies have found that mothers face an increased risk of preeclampsia, hypertension and other health issues with higher temperatures. During a baby’s final weeks in the womb, there is maturation in the brain and rapid physical growth. Studies have shown that babies born early have a higher risk of conditions such as asthma, developmental delays and a greater risk of the child being hospitalized early in life.

The study does not explain the link between extreme heat and early births. Animal studies have shown that heat stress can increase the amount of oxytocin produced by a mother. In human mothers, levels of this neuropeptide increase when labor begins. Another theory is that extreme heat could cause early labor due to cardiovascular stress.

Other studies have already noted negative links between warmer temperatures and births in humans and animals. This vast study covered 56 million births. Instead of using gestational length records, which could be misinterpreted, the authors looked at daily birth rates, which tend to be more accurate. They also took into account regional temperature differences.

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The climate crisis should bring more extremely hot days, early births could become a much bigger problem worldwide. This study only looked at data from 1969 to 1988. But there have been many more record hot days since then and more are expected in the future.



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