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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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Vitamin D to combat preterm birth

Infections involving the uterus and placenta are a leading cause of preterm birth, especially the earliest ones that pose the biggest risk to the baby. Because most pregnant women will experience no symptoms until they go into early labor, the infections are difficult to diagnose and treat. Martin Hewison, PhD, a March of Dimes Prematurity Research Initiative grantee at the University of California in Los Angeles, is investigating whether vitamin D can stimulate the immune system to fight off infections and help prevent preterm birth.

“Preterm birth is a particular problem for African-American mothers. Compared to caucasian mothers, they are almost twice as likely to deliver early,” says Dr. Hewison. African-American women also are more likely to have low levels of vitamin D in their blood, at least in part because people with darker skin filter more sunlight, which is required for the conversation of the inactive provitamin to the active form of the vitamin. Adding vitamin D to the diets of African-American moms-to-be may be beneficial. Because vitamin D is toxic in excessive doses, this should be done cautiously.

“Our preliminary data suggest that vitamin D fulfills a unique function in pregnancy by both enhancing bacterial killing and suppressing associated inflammation,” says Dr. Hewison. Uterine inflammation, which often results from infection, appears to play an important role in triggering preterm labor. If the results of his study are confirmed, his ultimate goal is to develop cheap and effective vitamin D supplementation regimens that could help prevent infection-related preterm deliveries in African-American moms-to-be and other pregnant women.

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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