The impact of premature birth on society

Premature birth is birth that happens too soon, before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Babies born this early may have more health problems or may need to stay in the hospital longer than babies born later. Each year in the United States, about 1 in 10 babies is born prematurely.

Prematurity can cause long-term health problems for babies. This can have long-lasting financial effects and can affect a person’s education and ability to work.

How much does premature birth cost society?

In 2007, the Institute of Medicine reported that the cost associated with premature birth in the United States was $26.2 billion each year. Here’s how the numbers add up: 

  • $16.9 billion in medical and health care costs for the baby
  • $1.9 billion in labor and delivery costs for mom
  • $611 million for early intervention services. These are programs for children from birth to age 3 with disabilities and developmental delays. They help children learn physical, thinking, communicating, social and self-help skills that normally develop before age 3. 
  • $1.1 billion for special education services. These services are specially designed for children with disabilities ages 3 through 21. They help children with development and learning. Children can get these services at school, at home, in hospitals and in other places, as needed. 
  • $5.7 billion in lost work and pay for people born prematurely

How does premature birth affect a child’s performance in school?  

Premature babies may have a harder time in school than babies born on time. They’re more likely to have learning and behavior problems throughout childhood. This may lead to low test scores, having to repeat grades and needing special education services. About 1 in 3 children born prematurely needs special school services at some point during their school years. The Institute of Medicine says these services cost an estimated $2,200 per year per child. Learning problems may not appear until elementary or even middle school. 

Even babies born at 36 to 38 weeks of pregnancy can struggle in school. Studies show that premature birth increases the likelihood that a child does poorly in school. In the last few weeks of pregnancy, a baby’s brain is still developing and growing. In fact, a baby’s brain at 35 weeks weighs only two-thirds of what it will weigh at 39 to 40 weeks. This is why if your pregnancy is healthy, it’s best to stay pregnant for at least 39 weeks. This gives your baby’s brain and other organs the time they need to develop before birth.

How does premature birth affect a person’s ability to work? 

Premature birth can affect a person’s being able to work, the amount of work he can do or both. Some adults who were born prematurely may have long-term health conditions that prevent or limit them from working. 

The Supplemental Security Income (also called SSI) program pays benefits to disabled adults and children who have limited income and resources. We don’t know exactly how many adults getting SSI were born prematurely. But as the average person in the United States lives to be about 79, long-term health problems that prevent a person from working could be covered by this government program for many years.

Last reviewed: October, 2015