Infant health

Poor living conditions and other socio-economic factors affect the health of mothers and newborns, but the quality of health care can greatly reduce the number of infant deaths, particularly by addressing life-threatening issues during the neonatal period (i.e. the first month of life). The main causes of death during the first month are congenital anomalies, prematurity and other conditions arising during pregnancy. For deaths beyond the first month (post neonatal mortality), there tends to be a greater range of causes, with the most common being sudden unexpected death in infancy (Euro-Peristat, 2018).

Infant mortality rates are low in most EU countries, with an average of less than 3.5 deaths per 1 000 live births across EU countries in 2018 (Figure 3.13). However, a small group of countries – Malta, Romania, Bulgaria and the Slovak Republic – still have infant mortality rates of 5 deaths per 1 000 live births or more. In Malta, infant mortality rates are higher because induced abortions following the detection of congenital anomalies are illegal, whereas this is possible in other countries in cases of severe and/or lethal anomalies.

All European countries have achieved notable progress in reducing infant mortality rates over the past few decades. The EU average went down from over 10 deaths per 1 000 live births in 1990 to 3.4 deaths in 2018. Reductions in infant mortality rates have been particularly rapid in Bulgaria and Romania, converging towards the EU average (Figure 3.14).

Across EU countries, 1 in 15 babies (6.6%) weighed less than 2 500 grammes at birth in 2018 (Figure 3.15). Low birthweight can occur as a result of restricted foetal growth or from pre-term birth. Low birthweight infants have a greater risk of poor health or death, require a longer period of hospitalisation after birth, and are more likely to have health problems and disabilities later in life. Some of the main risk factors for low birthweight include maternal smoking, alcohol consumption and poor nutrition during pregnancy, low body mass index, lower socio-economic status, having had in-vitro fertilisation treatment and multiple births, and higher maternal age.

The percentage of low birthweight is more than two-times greater in some EU countries than in others. There is a marked geographical variation that may reflect physiological differences in mothers and babies. The Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden and Denmark) have the lowest proportion of low birthweight babies, whereas some countries in Southern and Eastern Europe (Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria and Portugal) have the highest proportion.

Between 2010 and 2018, some countries like Austria and the Czech Republic registered substantial reductions in the percentage of low birthweight babies, whereas this share remained fairly stable in most other countries.


Euro-Peristat (2018), European Perinatal Health Report: Core indicators of the health and care of pregnant women and babies in Europe in 2015, November 2018.

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