Almost 400,000 babies are born prematurely in the United States each year. These babies miss out on important growth and development in the womb that happens during the final weeks or months of pregnancy.
November has been designated as National Prematurity Awareness Month. This aligns with World Prematurity Day on November 17th. These events give a platform to recognize all the babies being born prematurely and for us to look at ways we can help prevent preterm births.
Preterm birth is defined as birth earlier than 37 weeks of pregnancy. The earlier a baby is born, the higher their risk of death or serious disability. Thanks to research and medical advances, children born after 28 weeks of pregnancy and weighing more than 2 pounds 3 ounces have a good chance of survival, often with little complications. Babies born before 25 weeks are considered extremely premature, and these babies face the highest risks of death or serious complications. The earliest surviving premature babies have been born at 21-22 weeks, but survival at this age is extremely rare.
Some complications that a baby born prematurely may face include:
- Bleeding in the brain
- Breathing problems
- Heart problems
- Temperature control problems
- Feeding and other intestinal problems
- Cerebral palsy
- Developmental delay
- Vision problems
- Hearing problems
Premature babies need special medical care in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) where they stay until their organ systems can work on their own. In general, they must be breathing on their own, able to maintain their body temperature, able to be fed by breast or bottle, and gaining weight steadily before they can go home.
We don’t know all the reasons babies are born early, but research has identified many risk factors for having a premature baby, including:
- Delivering a premature baby in the past
- Have a short time (less than 18 months) between pregnancies
- Being pregnant with multiples
- Less than 18 years old or older than 35
- Tobacco use
- Substance abuse
- High blood pressure
- Being underweight or obese
- Urinary tract and vaginal infections
- Sexually transmitted infections
- High levels of stress
- Working long hours
- Exposure to certain environmental pollutants
Racial and ethnic disparities are also present in preterm births. For example, in 2017, the rate of preterm birth among non-Hispanic black women was 14% compared to 9% among non-Hispanic white women.
In support of premature babies and their families, the March of Dimes encourages the public to wear purple this month, especially on November 17th. The March of Dimes is one of the most prominent organizations that supports awareness, education, care and research of prematurity, but there are certainly others. Medical care is vital to the survival of these babies, and the more we can prevent babies from being born prematurely in the first place, the more babies that will have a healthy start to life.