Although more babies than ever are surviving and thriving due to advances in neonatology, premature birth remains the leading cause of death among newborns. One in eight babies is born prematurely each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Babies born less than 37 weeks into gestation are considered premature, but the risk of problems increases the earlier the baby is born.
“Preemies” are a source of great stress and worry among families. Instead of going home after a night or two in the hospital nursery, they often require an extended stay in a neonatal intensive care unit.
Premature birth gives babies less time to grow in the womb; consequently, their organs often are underdeveloped.
Many may need nutritional support via a feeding tube or require assistance to breathe. They are more likely to have anemia and are at a greater risk for jaundice that can cause brain damage. They also may have trouble regulating their body temperature.
They are more susceptible to infections and may have trouble with motor skills such as holding up their heads and crawling.
Longer-term complications can include cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, vision, dental and hearing problems, behavioral and psychological problems, and chronic health problems.
There are some things mothers can do during pregnancy to prevent premature births. Smoking and illegal drugs are two of the most dangerous controllable threats to a healthy pregnancy. Other controllable risk factors include drinking, stress, poor nutrition and being significantly underweight or overweight during pregnancy.
Of course, mothers have little or no control over other risk factors. They include having a previous premature birth, pregnancy with twins or other multiples, an interval of less than 18 months between pregnancies, conception through in vitro fertilization, chronic conditions such as diabetes, multiple miscarriages or abortion, physical injury and trauma, and unusual shape of the uterus.
African-American women are more likely to have a premature birth than women of other races.
Premature birth can happen to anyone, even to women with no known risk factors. The cause is unknown in up to 40 percent of cases, according to the March of Dimes. That’s why research is so vitally important.
Our largest local fundraiser is the March for Babies that takes place at 10 a.m. on April 27 at the Resolute Athletic Complex, 3599 Chiller Lane, near the OhioHealth Chiller at Easton in Columbus. Our goal this year is to raise $500,000 for the March of Dimes.
The March of Dimes funds research into the causes of prematurity and treatments of pre-term labor. Researchers are exploring genetic and environmental factors that may influence a woman’s chances of going into labor prematurely.
Drugs are being developed to prevent or stop pre-term labor. One of the most promising areas of research examines the role infections play; one in every three premature births can be attributed to an infection in a woman’s uterus, which often has no symptoms.
Although we have dramatically improved outcomes for premature babies over the years, there remains a lot we don’t know. Research is the key to unlocking the remaining mysteries. For more information about the March for Babies, visit www.marchforbabies.org or call 614-865-4513.
Hariklia Louvakis, MD, is a physician with OhioHealth Obstetrics and Gynecology Physicians and a member of the medical staff at OhioHealth Grady Memorial Hospital.