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Birth Weight Rising: Why Do Some Women Have Enormous Babies?

Fetal macrosomia, or having a larger-than-average baby, is by some estimates on the rise. Here's what you need to know about extra big babies.

Birth weight has trended upward in the U.S. for decades, with the average weight for a newborn now hovering around a healthy 7.5 pounds. Beyond that gentle statistical climb, however, there are worrying outliers. About 1 percent of babies weigh more than 9 lbs. 15 oz. at birth, and that’s when doctors grow concerned. In the past few years, babies that would’ve been considered gargantuan — 13-pound-plus newborns — have become more commonplace, with record-breaking deliveries recorded in Pennsylvania, California, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere. In the U.K., one mom famously gave birth — vaginally, no less — to a whopping 15-lbs., 7-oz. son. And just last year, a Florida woman raised eyebrows when she gave birth to a 13-pound baby girl by C-section. “It looked like they pulled a toddler out of my belly,” the mother told ABC News. “When the doctor was pulling her out of me I just start hearing them all laughing and excited.”

As birth weight approaches 10 pounds, vaginal delivery can put the mother and baby at risk. Delivering giant babies vaginally can injure the mother’s birth canal, tearing vaginal tissue and potentially rupturing the uterus, which can lead to severe bleeding and, if left untreated, death. Meanwhile, even if the enormous kid somehow makes it out of his or her mother, studies suggest the child is more likely to develop diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and abnormal cholesterol levels, opening the door to a life of long-term cardiovascular problems.

Macrosomia, and the related condition LGA (Large for Gestational Age), typically refer to babies who weigh more than 8 lbs. 13 oz. at birth. That’s big, but also fairly routine — about 7 percent of infants born in the U.S. (and 9 percent worldwide) qualify. Studies suggest that mothers who are older than 35, obese, or diagnosed with diabetes (either before or during pregnancy) are more likely to give birth to large children. Male babies are more likely than female babies to be born enormous, and overdue babies are also at higher risk.

We’re seeing more large babies now than ever before, and that might be because some of the factors that cause macrosomia — maternal diabetes and obesity — are also on the rise. One 2004 study suggested that, as mothers gained more weight and smoked less frequently, babies were starting to grow to unhealthy sizes in utero.

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Unfortunately, high birth weight is difficult to predict. There are a few warning signs — an abnormally long distance between the mother’s uterus and her pubic bone (known as fundal height), for instance, or excessive amniotic fluid. But even ultrasounds are notoriously unreliable when it comes to estimating birth weight. In fact, suspicions of macrosomia are among the most common reasons for doctors scheduling unnecessary C-sections and inductions — only to deliver babies with normal birth weights. One 2008 study found that interventions to protect women from high birthweight babies carry more risks than delivering a giant baby vaginally.

“Our ability to predict macrosomia is poor,” the authors of the 2008 study wrote. “Our management policy of suspected macrosomic pregnancies raises induction of labor and cesarean delivery rates without improving maternal or fetal outcome.”

Research has shown that a fear of macrosomia leads to medical interventions that are riskier for mothers and babies than delivering a larger-than-average infant. In other words, it isn’t easy delivering a giant baby. But potentially worse? Getting worked up about the relatively remote chance of having one.