Low Birth Weight and School Readiness

In the United States black women have for decades been twice as likely as white women to give birth to babies of low birth weight who are at elevated risk for developmental disabilities. Does the black-white disparity in low birth weight contribute to the racial disparity in readiness?

The author summarizes the cognitive and behavioral problems that beset many low birth weight children and notes that not only are the problems greatest for the smallest babies, but black babies are two to three times as likely as whites to be very small. Nevertheless, the racial disparities in low birth weight cannot explain much of the aggregate gap in readiness because the most serious birth weight-related disabilities affect a very small share of children. The author estimates that low birth weight explains at most 3-4 percent of the racial gap in IQ scores.

The author applauds the post-1980 expansions of Medicaid for increasing rates of prenatal care use among poor pregnant women but stresses that standard prenatal medical care cannot improve aggregate birth outcomes substantially. Smoking cessation and nutrition are two prenatal interventions that show promise. Several early intervention programs have been shown to improve cognitive skills of low birth weight children. But even the most promising programs can narrow the readiness gap only a little because their benefits are greatest for heavier low birth weight children and because low birth weight explains only a small share of the gap.

The author stresses the importance of reducing rates of low birth weight generally and of extending to all children who need them the interventions that have improved cognitive outcomes among low birth weight children. But because black infants are more likely to be born at the lowest birth weights, preventing low birth weight—when researchers learn how to—is likely to be more effective than early intervention in narrowing birth weight-related racial gaps in school readiness.