Preterm Birth: Leading Cause of Infant Deaths

November is Prematurity Awareness Month, and yesterday was World Premature Day. Premature birth is the leading cause of infant deaths worldwide and in the United States. Thankfully, the number of premature births has decreased steadily over the last several years after decades of increases. Unfortunately, approximately 380,000 babies are still born too soon in the United States alone. Preterm birth is defined as babies born before 37 weeks gestational age.

In 2003, The March of Dimes launched a Prematurity Campaign, and they have made it their mission to help end premature birth and help other babies in need. They expanded this campaign globally in 2008. There are two main goals of the campaign to raise public awareness of the problems related to prematurity and decrease the rate of preterm births. They sought to accomplish these goals through:

  • Funding research to find the cause of preterm birth
  • Encourage public and private sector investments in research to identify promising interventions to decrease preterm birth
  • Education on the signs and symptoms of preterm labor
  • Advocate to improve access to maternity care
  • Encourage health care providers to improve detection risks and address risk factors
  • Be a resource for families affected by prematurity

Sometimes, the exact cause of preterm birth cannot be pinpointed, but there are known risk factors which could put a woman at higher risk for preterm birth including:

  • Uterine over distention (multiples, polyhydramnios)
  • Cervical insufficiency
  • Increased stress
  • Poor nutrition
  • Infection
  • Hormonal changes
  • Vascular changes
  • Short inter-delivery interval
  • Smoking
  • Low or High pre-pregnancy weight

The good news is that lifestyle changes and preconception counseling can mitigate some of these risk factors.

At the 2015 American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Annual Clinical and Scientific Meeting, Dr. Rita Driggers, MD FACOG presented a lecture on how to handle preterm labor in different situations. There are currently many different approaches that clinicians use to help to prevent or delay preterm birth. The approach chosen depends upon several factors including the cause of the preterm labor (if known) and the current status of the mother and infant.

Preterm birth can lead to several short-term and long-term complications for an infant who is born too soon. Preterm infants are at higher risk for breathing, heart, brain, gastrointestinal, and immune system problems. Some long-term complications could include cerebral palsy, vision and hearing deficits, chronic health issues and developmental delays. You can find more information about complications from preterm birth here.