Three to Five Saves Lives

Couples who space their births 3 to 5 years apart increase their children's chances of survival, and mothers are more likely to survive, too, according to new research. Many women want to space births longer than they currently do. Programs can do more to help them achieve the birth intervals they want.

Over the years research has consistently demonstrated that, when mothers space births at least 2 years apart, their children are more likely to survive and to be healthy. Many programs have recommended 2-year intervals, and the message is widely known: In surveys most women say that a birth interval of 2 years is best.

Now new studies show that longer intervals are even better for infant survival and health and for maternal survival and health as well. Children born 3 to 5 years after a previous birth are about 2.5 times more likely to survive than children born before 2 years.

New Evidence

A 2002 study by researchers at the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) program finds that children born 3 years or more after a previous birth are healthier at birth and more likely to survive at all stages of infancy and childhood through age five. The study uses DHS data from 18 countries in four regions and assesses outcomes of more than 430,000 pregnancies.

Among the findings: Compared with children born less than 2 years after a previous birth, children born 3 to 4 years after a previous birth are:

1.5 times more likely to survive the first week of life;
2.2 times more likely to survive the first 28 days of life;
2.3 times more likely to survive the first year of life; and
2.4 times more likely to survive to age five.

Mothers Benefit, Too

A 2000 study by the Latin American Center for Perinatology and Human Development reinforces the DHS findings about children, using data for over 450,000 women. It also provides some of the best evidence yet that spacing births further apart improves mothers' health. Among the findings: Compared with women who give birth at 9- to 14-month intervals, women who have their babies at 27- to 32-month birth intervals are:

1.3 times more likely to avoid anemia;
1.7 times more likely to avoid third-trimester bleeding; and
2.5 times more likely to survive childbirth.

While the biological and behavioral mechanisms that make shorter birth intervals riskier for infants and mothers are little understood, researchers suggest such factors as maternal depletion syndrome, premature delivery, milk diminution, and sibling rivalry. For instance, studies suggest that shorter birth intervals may not allow mothers enough time to restore nutritional reserves that provide for adequate fetal nutrition and growth. Fetal growth retardation and premature delivery can result in low birth weight and greater risk of death.

Source: Population Reports, Vol.30, Number 3 Summer 2002 Series L, Number 13

Copyright POPIN Western Asia 2002