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Do IVF Babies Have a Higher Risk for Health Problems?

ivf-babyby Susan Warhus , M.D.

Q. Are babies conceived through IVF as healthy as those conceived the old-fashioned way?

A. What an interesting question! I wrote a book on fertility, and would you believe this topic never came up?

When I first read your question, my inclination was to answer, of course all babies are the same no matter how they’re conceived. However, as I dug deeper into the research, I was surprised to find that there may in fact be a difference.

newsletter-graphicHow IVF Works
In-vitro fertilization is a procedure to help a couple become pregnant.

Hormone injections stimulate the woman’s ovaries to produce eggs. Then, a doctor retrieves the eggs with an ultrasound-guided needle and fertilizes them with the partner’s sperm in the lab. The resulting embryos are monitored for several days, and healthy selected ones are transferred into the uterus. Any remaining healthy embryos are typically frozen for possible future use.

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Low Birth-Rate Risk—Even for Singleton Babies
With more than 1 percent of U.S. babies born via IVF, it’s important to know whether the procedure is linked to birth defects.

Several studies indicate that IVF babies are more likely to have birth-related problems because they’re often born as multiples (twins, triplets, etc.). A 2009 London study in Human Fertility concluded that multiple births were responsible for many of the premature and low-birth-weight infants. Such babies frequently have medical complications that require prolonged hospital stays. A 2006 Finland study in Pediatrics found that risks for cerebral palsy and other developmental disorders were higher among IVF multiple births.

Although regrettable, the link between multiple births, prematurity, low birth-weight and subsequent medical complications made sense to me.

What took me completely by surprise was that the research also shows that singleton (only one baby) IVF babies also have more complications than those conceived the old-fashioned way. A 2009 Canadian study in European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology concluded that IVF singletons also result in more preterm low-birth-weight infants and consequently harmful outcomes. Likewise, a 2009 Atlanta, Ga., study from Human Reproduction showed that IVF singleton births were more likely linked to heart defects, cleft palate and gastrointestinal problems.

Reasons for the Risks
So what is it that makes the IVF baby at risk? One theory is, the procedure itself must contribute to the problem—a medication or process performed during IVF. Another theory suggests that the infertile couple carry within them a problem that brought them to the IVF specialist in the first place. Does the couple have health issues that have contributed to their infertility and subsequently contributed to an unhealthy infant? This is still an unanswered question.

Reducing the number of transplanted embryos during the IVF procedure may help reduce the chance of multiple births. This would alleviate some of the problems associated with preterm and low-birth-weight infants. However, it’s still unclear what can be done to improve risks for the singleton baby. We need additional research to understand this complicated issue further.

In the meantime, any couple considering IVF should ask about the possible risks and benefits, including the chance of complications to their baby or babies.

Board-certified ob-gyn SUSAN WARHUS, M.D., focuses her time on teaching and writing. Her most recent book is Fertility Demystified.

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Last updated and/or approved: February 2012.
Original article appeared in September/October 2009 former print magazine. Bio current as of that issue. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.

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