April 13, 2024

Our changing climate may compromise the health of our babies before they’ve even exited the womb.

There’s growing evidence extreme temperatures and natural disasters are linked to premature births, stillbirths and even abnormal gestational weight and size in many parts of the world — including Australia.

And with global temperatures on the up and up, and natural disasters becoming more frequent, the World Health Organization (WHO) says mothers and their babies are in danger.

“Climate change is a growing threat to maternal, newborn and child health that can no longer be ignored,” the WHO says.

Inaction could even mean we lose some of the hard-won advances for maternal and newborn survival we’ve made in recent decades.

But the capacity for expectant mothers, particularly the most marginalised, to shield themselves from environmental stressors is pretty limited.

And considering Australia is one of the developed countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, experts say we need large-scale interventions now.

Not too hot, but not too cold

There are around 15 million pre-term births around the world each year, but a hotter Earth could mean we see even more.

Researchers who studied almost a million mothers in New South Wales found a 16 per cent higher risk of having a pre-term birth (when a baby is born before 37 weeks) for those living in the top 5 per cent hottest parts of the state.

Globally, pre-term births are the leading cause of death for children under five. They can cause lifelong health issues including lung disease and physical or intellectual disabilities.

It’s also been shown that stillbirths increase around 5 per cent for every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature, and this link is particularly strong in the last month of pregnancy.

Although the effects may seem small, the increasing frequency and intensity of heatwaves is putting more physiological burden on pregnant women who are already more sensitive to high temperatures.

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