Baby weighing is one of those classic contentious issues. Many parents like to have their babies weighed every week, and many health visitors are happy to oblige – in fact many parents are actively encouraged to have their babies weighed so frequently, and this can lead to parents feeling worried and undermined.
I assure you that it is unlikely (I hope!) that any health care professional consciously wants to disempower parents, but the fact remains that constant testing can have this effect, however subconscious it is.But having your baby weighed this frequently can be very worrying and undermining to new parents. It’s just one more way that a mistrust in your ability to parent is implied.
It can also lead to parents being pressured unpleasantly to stop breastfeeding by health professionals who aren’t trained enough to know how to support breastfeeding mums. So this weighing babies business is an important issue.
Why do we weigh babies?
Babies’ weight is a nice clear sign that your baby is growing. It can be plotted on a chart, which most people like, and which makes it objective so that continuity of care isn’t so important – it doesn’t matter if the health visitor you see this week is the one you saw last week.
Why not weigh babies?
Because it is only one sign that your baby is growing and weighing babies every single week can show anomalies that aren’t important in the slightest but can cause health visitors and parents are likely to worry and panic.
This often leads to health visitors talking very forcefully about formula milk if you’re breastfeeding (ideally, if a baby isn’t getting enough milk, and it’s important to the parents that breastfeeding continues, then the breastfeeding should be fixed, not abandoned), and further check-ups if you’re formula feeding.
Or you can be sent to the hospital for paediatrician appointments, x-ray checks and blood tests – a scary and worrying experience, which could well be entirely unnecessary.
Why are weight charts so unreliable?
Firstly, if your health visitor is using the old charts, often referred to (erroneously) as ‘formula feeding charts’, then these are actually very inaccurate. They were created using the data from hundreds of different research studies, which you may think is good, but actually all of those research studies were done very differently.
Some had just breastfed babies, some had just formula fed babies, some were mixed. Some were longitudinal (followed babies from birth for the first few years) and others were not. This has produced charts which don’t actually tell us what is physiologically normal for babies, just what is ‘average’.
What the World Health Organisation has done to produce the new charts, often (erroneously again) called ‘breastfeeding charts’, is to do a massive longitudinal study of exclusively breastfed (for the first six months) babies over the first few years of their lives in various countries around the world.
This was not so they could produce charts that showed how breastfed babies should grow, but so they could produce charts that showed how all babies should grow, because what is physiologically normal for human babies is for them to be fed human milk for the first six months of their lives.
However, even these charts aren’t perfect if they’re not being interpreted by someone who really knows what they’re doing and this is sadly often the case. It is often forgotten that weight is only one sign that a baby is thriving, and in the absence of any other signs, should not have so much emphasis placed on it.
Here’s an example of what can happen and often does: a baby of shorter than average parents is born large – over 8lb for example – but then they need to ‘catch down’ to the weight they’re meant to be, and this manifests itself as dropping centiles (those lines that health visitors are so keen on!) which really worries health visitors.
It doesn’t worry health visitors if they look at your whole baby and not just the chart. If they see your baby is developing, and growing; healthy, and happy; and born, for example, to shorter than average parents, then they’re likely to just say: ‘OK, bring him back in a month and get in touch sooner if you worry about anything else.’
Are you saying I shouldn’t get my baby weighed? Surely there’s a happy medium?
No, I’m not and yes, there is. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health recommend that babies are weighed a handful of times at birth – this is the age when weight gain is important, although it’s normal for babies to lose a little weight in the first few days after birth. After two weeks of age, babies should be weighed no more than monthly and that it is perfectly all right if they’re only weighed at 2, 3, 4 and 13 months of age. Only if there is some other concern should babies be weighed more frequently than this.
Of course, parents of third and fourth children often only ever have their babies weighed at birth, but by this point they may have broken free of the worry that they won’t be able to parent their own babies without ‘expert’ intervention, and they trust that they will know if there is anything to be concerned about.
It is entirely normal, as a first time parent, to need this external validation that you’re doing a good job, but try not to rely too heavily on weight charts and trust that you will very likely know when your baby isn’t growing enough and can get in touch with your health visitor then.