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Working while pregnant does not itself cause preterm births or low birth weight

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Great news for women everywhere: a woman’s employment status during pregnancy does not have a negative impact on her baby’s health.

When comparing women who worked full-time while pregnant with women who were not employed while pregnant, full-time employment was not directly associated with preterm birth or low birth weight, found a recent University of Minnesota study.

The latest study was led by University of Minnesota School of Public Health researcher Katy Backes Kozhimannil, Ph.D., Division of Health Policy and Management, who partnered with fellow University of Minnesota researchers Laura B. Attanasio, B.A., Division of Health Policy and Management, Patricia M. McGovern, Ph.D., Division of Environmental Health Sciences, Dwenda K. Gjerdingen, M.D., Department of Family Medicine and Community Health and Pamela Jo Johnson, Ph.D., Division of Epidemiology and Community Health and Medica Research Institute.  The study appears today in the online edition of Women’s Health Issues.

To arrive at their conclusion the researchers analyzed survey responses of mothers who delivered a child in 2005, used propensity score matching to balance critical characteristics between employment groups. They found:

  • No differences in low birth weight on the basis of employment status
  • No difference in preterm birth on the basis of employment status
  • Known risk markers (such as black race) remained highly predictive of unfavorable outcomes

“Prior research shows an association between certain job characteristics, such as strenuous physical labor and long work hours, and adverse birth outcomes, but often fails to disentangle a woman’s employment choices from her birth outcomes, given that women who work during pregnancy – out of choice or out of need – are very different from those who do not,” said Kozhimannil.

The researchers used statistical tools to accomplish more of an “apples to apples” comparison, and their analysis revealed that any association is likely due to the characteristics of the women or their jobs – not simply the fact of being employed – that may render them vulnerable to adverse birth outcomes.

Based on the study’s findings, researchers believe focus should be taken off whether or not a woman is employed, and be put instead on employment characteristics, especially those that are known risk markers for preterm birth and low birth weight.

“Our findings reiterate the importance of ongoing policy dialogue about the challenges faced by working mothers,” said Kozhimannil who pointed out the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, currently under consideration on Capitol Hill, has generated considerable discussion on how best to promote healthy pregnancies among employed women.

“The influence of employment on childbirth-related health is relevant for families, employers, insurers, health care providers, and for the government and private sector systems that support the care and wellbeing of mothers and children,” said Kozhimannil.

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