The global problem of premature birth

A report about the global toll of premature birth, Born Too Soon: The Global Action Report on Preterm Birth, published in 2012 by the March of Dimes, The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health, Save the Children, and the World Health Organization, represents almost 50 United Nations agencies, universities, and organizations. It contains the first-ever estimates of preterm birth rates by country.

Born Too Soon found that 15 million babies worldwide are born prematurely each year, and more than 1 million die due to complications from premature birth. Of these babies, the report notes, 75 percent could be saved if current cost-effective interventions were made available to all. The report ranked the United States 131st in the world in terms of its preterm birth rate. About in 1 in 10 babies is born too soon in the U.S. each year.

This problem is truly global, affecting families everywhere. Although the vast majority of premature births and related deaths occur in lower income countries, families in high-income nations are also at risk of having a baby born prematurely. 

Premature birth (birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy) is the leading cause of newborn death in the United States. Babies who survive an early birth often have breathing problems, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities and other lifelong problems. Even babies born just a few weeks early have higher rates of hospitalization and illness than full-term babies. In addition to the human costs, premature birth also has high economic costs: more than $26 billion annually, according to the Institute of Medicine.

Born Too Soon and an interactive map showing the preterm birth rates in the 184 countries in the report are available online at

Why are so many babies born early?

We don’t fully understand why so many babies are born prematurely and we’re actively researching the problem. We do know that medical care is important. In developing countries that struggle with high rates of infectious diseases, poor overall health and a lack of health care resources, a woman’s risk of preterm labor is among the highest in the world. Medical facilities, when available, often lack the resources to detect and treat problems. Equally problematic is a lack of knowledge and tools to help a baby survive an early birth.

Access to care plays a role even in the developed world. Other factors include more women having multiple births and babies later in life, sometimes with the help of fertility treatments, chronic medical conditions and the practice of planning early c-sections or labor inductions without a medical reason. Interventions that promote full term, 39-week pregnancies and improve the health of babies can significantly reduce health care costs.

The next steps

The next steps include implementing and expanding community education and medical outreach, as well as answering more of the questions around each region’s too-high rate of premature birth. We are working to identify populations at high risk and understand community needs so we can develop targeted and more effective approaches to care and education leading to fewer premature births and the greater promise that premature babies can live to become healthy adults.