November is Prematurity Awareness Month. Millions of children each year are born prematurely, putting them at risk of experiencing complications such as birth injuries. This month aims to spread awareness, educate the public, and support those who have experienced premature birth.
What Is a Premature Birth?
Premature births (also referred to as preterm) are considered births that occur before the 37th week of pregnancy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 10 children are born prematurely.
Premature births can be broken down into four categories depending on the exact week the child was born.
The four categories of premature births are:
- Extremely preterm: born at 25 weeks or less
- Very preterm: born at less than 32 weeks
- Moderately preterm: born between 32 and 34 weeks
- Late preterm: born between 34 and 36 weeks
Generally, the earlier the baby is born, the higher the chance of experiencing complications. However, some babies born prematurely may not experience any complications that affect their short and long-term health.
There are several factors that can cause a baby to be delivered too early on in the pregnancy. Unfortunately, some of these factors cannot be prevented.
Risk factors leading to premature birth include:
- Amniotic fluid or lower genital tract infections
- Conceiving the child from in vitro fertilization
- Experiencing issues with the cervix, placenta, and/or uterus
- Experiencing multiple miscarriages and/or abortions
- High blood pressure
- Less than 18 months between births
- Pregnancy with multiples (twins, triplets, etc.)
- Previously delivering a child prematurely
- Tobacco, alcohol, and drug use
The Link Between Prematurity and Birth Injuries
Unfortunately, preterm births can have a great impact on a child’s overall health and can lead to a variety of complications. Babies born prematurely have an increased risk of suffering from birth injuries.
The brain, lungs, eyes, heart, and other important organs are not completely developed before the 37th week of pregnancy.
Some short-term effects of prematurity include:
- Chronic lung diseases
- Gastrointestinal issues such as necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC)
- High risk of infection
- Intraventricular hemorrhage
- Low blood pressure
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
- Low body temperature (hypothermia)
- Opening in between the artery and aorta (patent ductus arteriosus)
- Pauses in breathing (apnea)
- Respiratory distress syndrome
Some of these complications may not be visible immediately after birth. These effects can be treated in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to ensure they do not progress and cause long-lasting consequences to the baby’s health.
Unfortunately, some children can experience more severe long-term effects due to their prematurity.
Children born preterm have a high risk of developing cerebral palsy. This neurological group of conditions can cause lifelong issues with movement and balance.
Cerebral palsy can also cause intellectual, behavioral, and verbal issues. According to the CDC, studies show that premature babies are more likely to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a common co-existing condition associated with cerebral palsy.
Children can increase their overall mobility with cerebral palsy treatments such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, surgery, medication, and more. Behavioral, social, and verbal skills can be improved with the help of speech therapy.
How To Prevent Prematurity in Infants
As the public becomes more educated and aware about safe pregnancies, premature births are becoming more uncommon. According to the CDC, the national preterm birth rate decreased 8% between 2007 and 2014.
Some birth injuries caused by prematurity cannot be prevented. However, there are steps mothers can take to prevent going into preterm labor and to reduce the risks of harmful complications.
Some ways to prevent going into preterm labor include:
- Actively monitor other health conditions such as diabetes
- Do not smoke, use drugs, or drink alcohol
- Eat a healthy diet
- Get plenty of rest
- Reduce stress levels
- Stay active
- Take folic acid supplements
It is also essential to attend regular prenatal visits with your doctor. Your obstetrician will monitor your baby’s development to ensure there are no signs of complications.
Your doctor can also identify any other risk factors that may cause preterm labor. Be sure to let your doctor know if you had a previous premature delivery as they can prescribe progesterone therapy to help you carry your baby as long as possible. Progesterone is a hormone that helps the uterus to grow during pregnancy.
Taking preventative measures to carry your baby into full term can greatly reduce the risk of prematurity and other long-term health issues. Although many premature births have no explanation, these steps can help you to experience healthy childbirth for both you and your baby.
Prematurity Awareness Month & World Prematurity Day
Each November since 2003 has been recognized as Prematurity Awareness Month. Nov. 17 is also acknowledged as World Prematurity Day.
These initiatives were founded by March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization striving to support the health of mothers and babies.
The goal of March of Dimes is to advocate for research, educate medical professionals, and comfort families experiencing life in the NICU. Prematurity Awareness Month was created to raise awareness on prematurity and raise money to support families affected by preterm birth.
This year, March of Dimes will host Health Equity Week starting on Nov 15 to focus on legislative action and advocacy for prematurity.
This week will include several livestream events to raise awareness and fight for change to support mothers and babies.
Notable livestream events include:
- Nov 15 at 9:30 a.m. ET: National Press Club Event to highlight March of Dimes Report Card findings
- Nov. 17, 9:30 a.m. ET: Washington Post Live’s Health Equity Maternal & Infant Health with March of Dimes President & CEO Stacey D. Stewart
To find ways to watch and register for these events, visit the March of Dimes website.
There are several other ways you can support the cause and recognize Prematurity Awareness Month this November.
Some ways to support Prematurity Awareness Month include:
- Donate to March of Dimes
- Make a Facebook fundraiser
- Participate in a livestream event
- Share your story on social media
- Volunteer at your local NICU
- Wear purple, the color representing prematurity
The Birth Injury Justice Center is proud to support families affected by preventable birth injuries during premature births. If you believe your child’s injury was caused by medical negligence, connect with one of our experienced nurses to learn more about next steps.