Premature Birth: Navigating the spectrum and addressing the alarming rise in rates

In the United States, the prevalence of premature births is a staggering concern, with one in ten babies born prematurely in 2021. That equates to nearly 7,400 babies each week facing the challenges of early birth. As we observe rising prematurity rates, it’s crucial to delve into the intricacies of premature birth, its rising rates, and the associated risk factors.

The Definition and Impact of Premature Birth

Premature birth occurs when a baby is delivered before the 37th week of a typical 40-week pregnancy. This early arrival hinders the baby’s ability to fully complete its growth and development in the womb, leading to potential health complications in the initial days and weeks of life. As Dr. Angela Seabright, care management physician at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, emphasizes, “Being born prematurely means a baby is not able to fully finish growing and developing inside the womb,” and this reality underscores the challenges preemie babies often face.

In 2021, the preterm birth rate in the U.S. rose to 10.5%, showcasing a slow but concerning increase from 9.8% in 2011. Michigan’s preterm birth rate stands at 10.6%, slightly above the national average. As Dr. Seabright highlights, “The earlier a baby is born, the higher the chances they will have more serious health issues.” This trend necessitates a deeper understanding of the factors contributing to premature births.

The U.S. maternal mortality rate for Black women is nearly three times higher than that of White women.

Identifying Risk Factors for Premature Birth

Preterm births may occur in the absence of known risk factors, but certain conditions can increase the likelihood, as Dr. Seabright highlights. These key risk factors encompass various aspects:

Pregnancy-related factors pose a significant risk, including multiple pregnancies such as twins or triplets, pregnancies occurring less than six months after a previous one, and a history of premature birth.

Health problems contribute to the risk of preterm birth, with conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, infections, injuries, or trauma, as well as complications related to the uterus, cervix, or placenta.


“Many times, preterm births happen when there are no known risk factors. They can happen to anyone,” says Dr. Seabright. “Understanding these risk factors can empower individuals and healthcare providers to take proactive measures to mitigate them.”

Be aware of the risk factors for preterm birth.

Promoting a Healthy Pregnancy

To minimize the risk of premature birth, pregnant individuals are encouraged to adhere to specific guidelines. Early and continuous prenatal care is paramount, involving seeking care as soon as pregnancy is suspected and following healthcare provider recommendations.

Dr. Seabright underscores the importance, stating, “Individuals should initiate prenatal care with a healthcare provider as soon as they suspect pregnancy and continue throughout the pregnancy as advised.” Lifestyle adjustments are integral to this preventive approach, including quitting smoking, abstaining from alcohol and drug use, and maintaining a healthy weight before pregnancy.

Equally significant is the disclosure of medical history, with a particular emphasis on any instances of previous preterm births. Additionally, prompt action is crucial, with individuals urged to seek immediate medical attention if signs of preterm labor manifest.

As Dr. Seabright emphasizes, “Immediate medical attention is crucial at the first signs of preterm labor.” These proactive measures are essential in fostering a healthy pregnancy and reducing the risk of premature birth.

A young mother with eyes closed holds a sleeping infant on her chest.

Maternal and infant health crises are growing worse in the U.S. LWA/Dann Tardif/Digital Vision via Getty Images

Navigating the Hospital Experience

Parents faced with a preterm birth encounter unique challenges. Understanding what to expect during hospital care for preterm babies is crucial for preparedness. Dr. Seabright says, “Preterm babies typically face health challenges. The earlier a baby is born, the higher the chances they will have more serious health issues.”

Specialized care: Preterm babies may require assistance with breathing, feeding, infection prevention, and temperature regulation due to their premature development. As Dr. Seabright notes, “Since they are born before their organs have time to fully mature, they may need help breathing, feeding, fighting infections and regulating their body temperature.”

Extended hospital stays: The need for specialized care often extends hospital stays, with neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) providing round-the-clock monitoring. Dr. Seabright emphasizes, “This care usually requires a longer stay in the hospital under the care of highly trained medical staff.”

Intermediate care nurseries: Some hospitals offer intermediate care with less intensive support, serving as a transitional step between NICU and standard care.

For parents navigating these early days of their child’s life in a specialized care unit, Dr. Seabright provides reassurance, “Professionals have treated many babies undergoing similar challenges – and are ready to help.”

As we raise awareness about premature birth, it’s essential to acknowledge the rising rates and equip individuals with the knowledge to reduce risks and navigate the challenges associated with preterm births.

Dr. Seabright explains, “By fostering a collective commitment to understanding and preventing premature births, we can strive to improve outcomes for both infants and their families. Let us unite in our efforts to ensure a healthier start for every child.”


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