Preventing premature birth
Premature birth is a complex problem with no single solution. More than half a million babies are born prematurely each year in the United States. In up to 40 percent of cases, the cause is unknown. March of Dimes researchers are seeking the causes of prematurity as a step toward developing ways to prevent it.
In 2005, the March of Dimes began the Prematurity Research Initiative (PRI), which funds research into the causes of prematurity. More than $15 million has been awarded to 43 grantees over the past 6 years. Some PRI grantees are exploring how genetics or a combination of genetic and environmental factors may influence a woman’s chances of going into labor prematurely. Others are examining how infections may trigger early labor. One of every three premature births can be attributed an infection in a woman’s uterus, which may have presented with no symptoms.
PRI grantees also are exploring new ways to treat preterm labor. Some are studying how the body normally suppresses uterine contractions until a baby reaches full term, so that new drugs can be developed to prevent or stop preterm labor.
In addition to PRI support, the March of Dimes funds prematurity research through its national research program. Grantees are improving the care of premature babies by developing new ways to help prevent or treat common complications of prematurity. For example, researchers helped develop surfactant treatment, which has saved tens of thousands of premature babies with breathing problems.
A novel approach to address the complex problem of preterm birth and the resulting prematurity is a transdisciplinary effort within which many diverse disciplines work together by integrating research. By working together, they can examine this problem from new perspectives in ways that individual studies do not allow. The March of Dimes has established the first transdisciplinary research center and plans to promote the establishment of several more.
Most common questions
Is premature birth a serious health problem?
Yes. Premature babies are at increased risk of newborn health complications, including breathing and intestinal problems and bleeding in the brain. They also are at increased risk of death and lasting disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, behavioral problems, cerebral palsy and vision and hearing loss.
What is late-preterm birth?
Late-preterm birth refers to babies born between 34 and 36 weeks of pregnancy. More than 70 percent of premature babies are born at this time. While these babies are usually healthier than babies born earlier, they are 3 times more likely to die in the first year of life than full-term infants. They also are at increased risk of newborn health problems, including breathing and feeding problems. Some late-preterm births result from early induction of labor or cesarean delivery due to pregnancy complications. However, in some cases, early delivery may occur without good medical justification. Unless there are medical problems, women should wait until at least 39 weeks to schedule an induced labor or c-section to prevent possible prematurity-related problems in their babies.
Which women are at greatest risk for premature birth?
Three groups of women are at greatest risk. These include women who have had a previous premature birth, women who are pregnant with twins or more, and women with certain abnormalities of the uterus and cervix. Treatment during pregnancy with the hormone progesterone can help reduce the risk of another premature birth in some women who have had a previous premature birth. These women should discuss with their health care provider whether this treatment is right for them.