By Colleen Hurley, RD, Certified Kid’s Nutrition Specialist
Having a baby prematurely is a harrowing experience for the whole family, and can often leave a baby with lifelong health struggles. The good news is, more research has been focused on care and treatment for preemies than ever before, finding improved standards of care. A recent report explains the new goal for upcoming research focuses on preventing premature births altogether.
Certain factors have been found to play a role in woman’s risk of giving birth prematurely such as family history, stress, and infection; but no one understands why some women give birth too soon while others do not.
Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the report summarizes a three day symposium held in December, 2008 entitled “Preventing Prematurity: Establishing a Network for Innovation and Discovery”. The symposium was cosponsored by the March of Dimes and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund which brought together top researchers in preterm birth prevention research.
In the United States (US), more than 543,000 babies are born early and about 13 million worldwide. Premature birth is the leading cause of infant death in the US with only half having a known cause. Babies who survive face serious risks of lifelong health problems and chronic conditions. There has also been a rise in induced deliveries which result in late preterm births or between 32 and 36 weeks gestation. Preeclampsia is a serious medical condition indicated by elevated maternal blood pressure and often a reason for early induction but authors note the decision to induce must be balanced with the need to minimize infant risk. Preeclampsia, however, does not fully explain the rise in induced labor.
Stress, genetics, inflammation, race, and family history of preterm birth all play a role in a woman’s risk. One in three early deliveries is associated with a uterine infection, but often these infections do not present with any symptoms. Recent studies have found that maternal genes play the greatest role in a woman’s risk of preterm birth, but the genes of the infant can also be a factor. Scientific advancements have allowed doctors to save preemies as well as reduce the risk of complications, the authors note, but prevention is really what is needed and research will be directed towards making that possible.