Complications of premature birth
outrank all other causes as the world’s number one cause of death in children under the age of 5, according to the United Nations.
In the United States, November is National Prematurity Awareness Month, a time to draw attention to premature birth and the importance of increasing healthy and safe pregnancies and deliveries. What is Premature Birth?
A premature or preterm birth is a birth that is less than 37 weeks or is at least three weeks before a baby's due date, according to the Centers for Disease of Control and Prevention (CDC)
Worldwide, one in 10 births result in a premature infant or 15 million babies are born prematurely each year, said Billie Lou Short, MD
, Chief of the Division of Neonatology
at Children’s National Health System.
Nearly half a million babies in the United States alone are born prematurely each year, according to the March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization focused on pregnancy and infant health.
It is the “number one cause of death in the newborn period, birth to 1 year of age,” Dr. Short said.
“Although babies born very preterm are just a small percentage of all births, these very preterm infants account for a large proportion of all infant deaths. More infants die from preterm-related problems than from any other single cause,” according to the CDC.
Learn more about the departments at Children’s National - Neonatology
, Critical Care Medicine
, and Fetal Medicine
- that treat premature babies.Born Too Early, Too Small
Throughout pregnancy, important development occurs, especially in the final months and weeks before birth. Low birth weight and retinopathy of prematurity
are some of the health risks associated with babies born too soon.
“Over 1 million children die each year due to complications of preterm birth. Many survivors face a lifetime of disability, including learning disabilities and visual and hearing problems,” Dr. Short said.Risk Factors for Premature Birth
According to Dr. Short and the CDC
, some known factors that contribute to premature birth are:
- Carrying more than one baby such as twins, triplets, or more
- Problems with the uterus or cervix
- Poor nutrition
- Chronic health problems in the mother such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and clotting disorders
- Certain infections during pregnancy
- Cigarette smoking, alcohol use, or illicit drug use during pregnancy
- Having a previous preterm birth
- Mother's age (women younger than age 18 and older than 35 are more likely to have a preterm delivery)
- Exposure to environmental pollutants
Read more about factors contributing to a premature birth
.What Can Be Done to Reduce the Risk of Preterm Birth?
A mother could do everything correctly and still have a preterm baby, but some of the following tips may help reduce the risk, according to Dr. Short:
- Visiting a healthcare provider regularly before pregnancy and throughout the pregnancy
- Managing the mother’s health, i.e., controlling blood pressure, no smoking or excessive alcohol use
- Maintaining good maternal nutrition and no illicit drug use
- Asking the obstetrician about prescription medications to find out about potential effects on the baby
- Since a Caesarean section (C-section) or Caesarean delivery may increase the risk of a baby being delivered too early, this surgery “should only be done when there are clinical reasons to do so,” Dr. Short said, such as fetal distress, uterine rupture, and other critical situations