Number of low birth weight babies rising in Canada

Monday, July 26 2010

After declining for a number of years, the number of underweight babies born in Canadian hospitals began to increase in 2001-2002, steadily growing from 5.7% of births to 6.2% of births in 2005-2006, or one in every 16 babies. These low birth weight babies often spend a long time in hospital and may experience lifelong complications and challenges. A new analysis available today from the Canadian Institute for Health Information also looks at these low birth weight rates, along with C-section rates, epidural use and assisted delivery rates at a national, provincial and health region level.

Some highlights of the report:

CIHI spokespeople will be available to provide context for these numbers, and we will have obstetricians and researchers available to provide more insight into why these rates are changing. For more information or to schedule an interview, please contact me at any of the numbers below.


Leona Hollingsworth
Media Relations Specialist
Canadian Institute For Health Information
495 Richmond Road
Ottawa, Ontario
(613) 241-7860; (613) 241-8120 (fax)
(613) 612-3914 (cell)

CIHI--Taking health information further




Number of low birth weight babies rising in Canada

New analysis on birthing trends shows Caesarean-section rates, epidural use also increasing

July 25, 2007—In 2005–2006, about one in 16 babies (6.1%) born in Canadian hospitals was underweight, weighing less than 2,500 grams (or 5.5 pounds), according to new analysis from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI). This represents a steady increase in the rate of low birth weight babies over the past five years, up from 5.7% of hospital births in 2001–2002. The low birth weight rate had been declining between 1997 and 1999.

“Some babies weighing less than five-and-a-half pounds at birth may have difficulties ahead,” said Caroline Heick, CIHI’s Director of Acute and Ambulatory Care Information Services. “For example, they may face long periods of hospitalization and have an increased risk of lifelong complications. Though the increase seems to mirror U.S. trends, it is very important to continue to monitor these rates in Canada and try to determine why, after years of progress in prenatal care, the number of babies born underweight appears to be rising again.”

CIHI’s new analysis, Giving Birth in Canada: Regional Trends From 2001–2002 to 2005–2006, provides the most up-to-date information on the birthing process in Canada, and shows notable variations in the rates of low birth weight babies across Canada. For example, among the provinces, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba reported the lowest low birth weight rate (5.0% and 5.4% respectively) in 2005–2006, while Alberta and Ontario reported the highest average provincial rates (6.9% and 6.4% respectively). Rates were even higher at the health region level within the provinces, with some regions in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, and Alberta reporting low birth weight rates of over 7%.

One in four babies delivered by Caesarean section

The number of women giving birth by Caesarean section in Canada steadily increased over the past five years, climbing from 23% in 2001–2002 to 26% in 2005–2006. This is lower than the rate in the United States and Australia in 2004 (29%), though higher than the rate in England in 2005–2006 (24%). The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends no more than 15% of all births should involve a Caesarean section.

CIHI’s analysis found that women who had a previous Caesarean-section delivery have an 82% chance of having a repeat Caesarean section, up from 73% in 2001–2002. Women who had a Caesarean section in 2005–2006 were older than women having a vaginal delivery (30.4 years versus 28.7 years).

“Over the past five years, we’ve seen an increase in Caesarean-section rates for birth mothers in all age groups across Canada,” says Heick. “However, we do see wide variation in these rates between provinces. Some literature suggests that changes in obstetrical practice and a low tolerance for fetal risk may be contributing factors.”

At the provincial level, Caesarean-section rates ranged from lows of 21% in Saskatchewan and Manitoba to highs of 30% in Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia. Regionally, lows ranged from 18% in Interlake (Manitoba) and 19% in Prince Albert (Saskatchewan) to highs of 34% in the Central Health Region (Newfoundland and Labrador) and 37% in South Vancouver Island (B.C.).

Use of epidurals increasing; assisted deliveries decreasing

Epidural use also increased between 2001–2002 and 2005–2006 in most regions. More than half (54%) of all women who gave birth vaginally in 2005–2006 were given an epidural, up from 45% of all vaginal births four years earlier. The rate of epidural use varied greatly among regions, as well as among provinces and territories. In 2005–2006, provincial rates ranged from 25% in P.E.I. and 28% in B.C. to 56% in Ontario and 68% in Quebec. Rates in the territories were generally much lower, at 9.0% in Nunavut, 15% in the Northwest Territories and 32% in the Yukon Territory. Regionally, rates ranged from 9.0% in the Central Health Region (Newfoundland and Labrador) and 10% in North Vancouver Island (B.C.) to 79% in Lanaudière (Quebec) and 78% in Capitale nationale (Quebec).

In contrast to Caesarean-section and epidural rates, overall assisted delivery rates decreased in most regions, from 16% of births in 2000–2001 to 14% of vaginal births in 2005–2006. As an assisted delivery technique, vacuum extraction was used approximately twice as frequently as forceps, with average rates in Canada of 9.8% and 3.7% respectively in 2005–2006. At the provincial level, the lowest overall assisted delivery rates were observed in P.E.I. (6.5%) and Manitoba (8.7%), while the highest were in Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta (17%). Regionally, lows ranged from 4.5% in Region 6 (Bathurst area) of New Brunswick and 5.4% in the Central Health Region (Manitoba), to highs of 23% in the East Central and Calgary Health Regions in Alberta.

About CIHI

The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) collects and analyzes information on health and health care in Canada and makes it publicly available. Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial governments created CIHI as a not-for-profit, independent organization dedicated to forging a common approach to Canadian health information. CIHI’s goal: to provide timely, accurate and comparable information. CIHI’s data and reports inform health policies, support the effective delivery of health services and raise awareness among Canadians of the factors that contribute to good health.


Media contacts:


Christina Lawand

613-241-7860 ext. 4310

Leona Hollingsworth

613-241-7860 ext. 4140

Cell: 613-612-3914

The report and the following figures and tables are available from CIHI’s website, at

Figure 1. Rates of Low Birth Weight (Excludes Babies Weighing Less Than 500 Grams)
in Canada From 1997 to 2005 Using In-Hospital (CIHI) and Population Births (Statistics Canada, STC) (Figure 8 in the Analysis)

Figure 2. In-Hospital Low Birth Weight Rates (<2,500 Grams), by Reportable Health Region, Canada, 2005–2006 (Figure 9 in the Analysis)

Figure 3. Total Caesarean Section Rates by Reportable Health Region, Canada,
2005–2006 (Figure 5 in the Analysis)

Figure 4. Epidural Rates Among Vaginal Deliveries by Reportable Health Region, Canada, 2005–2006 (Figure 1 in the Analysis)

Figure 5. Overall Assisted Delivery Rates (Includes Vacuum Extraction and/or
Forceps Use), by Reportable Health Region, Canada, 2005–2006
(Figure 3 in the Analysis)

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