In 2015, One Out of Ten Babies Born Too Early; Preterm Risks

On November 7, 2016, the CDC published a report finding the preterm birth rate rose slightly in 2015 and about one out of ten babies (10%) was born too soon in the United States. Additionally, racial and ethnic differences in preterm birth rates remain. In 2015, the rate of preterm birth among non-Hispanic black women (13%) was about 50% higher than the rate of preterm birth among non-Hispanic white women (9%). Preterm birth rates decreased from 2007 to 2014. The decline in preterm births is partly due to fewer teens and young women becoming pregnant.


Important growth and development occur throughout pregnancy—including in the final months and weeks. Premature (also known as preterm) birth is when a baby is born too early, before 37 weeks of pregnancy have been completed. The earlier a baby is born, the higher the risk of death or serious disability. In 2013, about one-third (36%) of infant deaths were due to preterm-related causes. Babies who survive can have breathing issues, intestinal (digestive) problems, and bleeding in their brains. Long-term problems may include developmental delay (not meeting the developmental milestones for his or her age) and lower performance in school.


Experts don't know all the reasons that some babies are born too soon. Even if a woman does everything "right" during pregnancy, she still can have a preterm birth. The following risk factors can increase the chance that a woman will have a preterm birth.


In addition to race, risk factors for preterm birth include social characteristics of the mother, health behaviors of the mother, and medical and pregnancy characteristics. Social characteristics of the mother that are risk factors for preterm birth include teenage mothers, mothers over age 35, and mothers in low socioeconomic positions (a measure that typically includes income, education, and occupation). Health behaviors of the mother that are risk factors for preterm birth include tobacco use, alcohol or drug abuse, and low or high body mass index (a measure of weight status calculated from weight and height). Medical and pregnancy characteristics that are risk factors for preterm birth include mental health (stress, depression), pregnancy history (short time between pregnancies, delivering a baby preterm in the past, carrying more than one baby), pregnancy complications, medical disorders (thyroid disease, obesity, asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure), fertility treatments (assisted reproductive technology or other treatments), and infection within the uterus.


Preterm birth can be reduced using a number of strategies. Women age 18 to 44 can be provided access to health care before and between pregnancies. Women at risk for giving birth too early can be identified and offered effective treatments to prevent preterm birth. Deliveries before 39 weeks without a medical need can be discouraged. Unintended pregnancies can be prevented. Ideal length of time between pregnancies can be achieved. Single embryo transfer can be elected as appropriate to reduce multiple births when undergoing in vitro fertilization.


Because November is National Prematurity Awareness Month, it is important that the problem, risk factors, and what can be done to reduce premature birth be considered by all practitioners caring for pregnancies.


See the CDC Report


See the CDC Information Site for Preterm Birth


See also Medical Law Perspectives, January 2015 Report: Mothers, Infants, and Obstetrical Injuries: Labor and Delivery Liability