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Prematurity research

  • Researchers are working to identify the causes of premature birth.
  • In progress: new treatments to prevent or halt preterm labor.
  • Medical breakthroughs improve the care of premature babies.
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Preventing premature birth

Premature birth is a complex problem with no single solution. More than 450,000 babies are born prematurely each year in the United States. In about half of cases, the cause is unknown. March of Dimes researchers are seeking the causes of prematurity as a step toward developing ways to prevent it.

Prematurity research initiative 

In 2004, the March of Dimes began the Prematurity Research Initiative (PRI), which funds research into the causes of prematurity. Since then, nearly $24 million has been awarded to 73 grantees.  Some PRI grantees are exploring how genetics or a combination of genetic and environmental factors may influence a woman’s chances of going into labor prematurely. Others are examining how infections may trigger early labor.  Infections involving a woman’s uterus may contribute to about 1 of every 4 premature births. These infections often cause no symptoms.

Treating preterm labor

PRI grantees also are exploring new ways to treat preterm labor. Some are studying how the body normally suppresses uterine contractions until a baby reaches full term, so that new drugs can be developed to prevent or stop preterm labor.

Saving preemies’ lives

In addition to PRI support, the March of Dimes funds prematurity research through its national research program. Grantees are improving the care of premature babies by developing new ways to help prevent or treat common complications of prematurity. For example, researchers helped develop surfactant treatment, which has saved tens of thousands of premature babies with breathing problems.

Transdisciplinary research centers
The March of Dimes is pioneering a novel team approach to examine the complex problem of preterm birth from every angle. We have launched the second of five planned  transdisciplinary research center aimed exclusively at finding the unknown causes of premature birth. At these centers, scientists from many diverse disciplines work together to develop new strategies to understand, and ultimately develop preventions for preterm labor.  

Research breakthroughs

From the PKU test to surfactant and nitric oxide therapies, March of Dimes funded research is saving the lives of thousands of babies.

Most common questions

How many babies are born prematurely each year?

In the United States, more than 450,000 babies are born too soon each year. Worldwide, 15 million babies are born prematurely.

What are the consequences of premature birth?

Prematurity is the leading cause of death in the first month of life. Worldwide, more than one million children die each year due to complications of premature birth. Babies who survive an early birth often face the risk of lifetime health challenges, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, breathing problems, and vision and hearing loss.

Why is it important for a pregnancy to last at least 39 weeks?

If a pregnancy is healthy, it should go to at least 39 weeks. That’s because babies born at 39 and 40 completed weeks of pregnancy (called full term) have the best chance of a healthy start in life. Even babies born at 37 and 38 weeks (called early term) have a higher risk of newborn complications, like breathing problems. Babies born prematurely (before 37 weeks) have a higher risk of newborn health problems and lasting disabilities.

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