The global problem of premature birth

In 2012, a report about the global toll of preterm birth, , was published by the March of Dimes Foundation, 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 finds that 15 million babies worldwide are born preterm each year, and more than 1 million die due to preterm complications. Of these babies, the report notes, three-quarters could be saved if current cost-effective interventions were made available to all. The report ranks the U.S. 131st in the world in terms of its preterm birth rate of 12.0 per 100 live births, almost tied with Somalia, Thailand, and Turkey. Nearly half a million babies are born too soon in the U.S. each year.

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

Preterm birth (birth before 37 weeks completed gestation) is the leading cause of newborn death in the U.S. 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 infants. In addition to the human costs, preterm 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 preterm 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.

Working together

On November 17, 2013, organizations around the world will observe the third World Prematurity Day to raise awareness that preterm birth is a serious problem worldwide. Our World Prematurity NetworkSM partners include the European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants (EFCNI), Little Big Souls International Foundation in Africa and the National Premmie Foundation in Australia, a Home for Premature Babies in China, Bliss in the United Kingdom and Borngreat Foundation in Africa. We welcome inquiries from organizations who are interested in supporting these efforts.

The March of Dimes is the leading nonprofit organization for pregnancy and baby health. With chapters nationwide, the March of Dimes works to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality. For the latest resources and information, visit marchofdimes.com or nacersano.org. Find us on Facebook.

See also: Global toll of preterm birth

Most common questions

How does the Campaign work to achieve its goals?

The campaign funds research to find the causes of premature birth, and to identify and test promising interventions; educates health care providers and women about risk-reduction strategies; advocates to expand access to health care coverage to improve maternity care and infant health outcomes; provides information and emotional support to families affected by prematurity; and generates concern and action around the problem.

What are the goals of the March of Dimes Prematurity Campaign?

The goals of the Prematurity Campaign are to reduce the rate of premature birth, and to raise public awareness about the seriousness of the problem.

Why is the problem of prematurity so important?

Prematurity is the leading killer of America's newborns. Those who survive often have lifelong health problems, including cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, chronic lung disease, blindness and hearing loss.

©2013 March of Dimes Foundation. The March of Dimes is a non-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).