Worldwide, 15 million babies are born prematurely each year. Prematurity has become the leading cause of newborn deaths worldwide, resulting in more than 1 million deaths each year. Preterm birth rates around the globe are increasing and are now responsible for 35% of the world’s neonatal deaths; the condition is the second-leading cause of death among children under five, after pneumonia.
Babies are considered to be preterm when born alive before 37 weeks of pregnancy are completed. Over 80% of premature babies are born between 32 and 37 weeks of gestation. Most newborn deaths among this group are caused by lack of simple, essential care such as warmth and feeding support. Babies born before 28 weeks gestation require intensive care to live; however, these cases make up only 5% of preterm births.
Being born preterm increases a baby’s risk of dying due to other causes, especially from neonatal infections. For preterm babies that survive, many face a lifetime of disability: preterm babies are at increased risk of cerebral palsy, learning impairment, visual disorders, and other non-communicable diseases.
The burden of preterm birth is substantial for many developing countries, and scale up of some low-tech, cost-effective interventions can help to reduce newborn deaths from prematurity. Reducing the burden of preterm birth has two main elements: prevention and care.
Interventions that are proven to help prevent preterm birth are clustered in the preconception, between pregnancy, and pregnancy periods, as well as during preterm labor. Interventions to reduce death and disability among premature babies can be applied both during labor and after birth. If these were universally available to women and their babies (95% coverage), almost 1 million premature babies could be saved each year.
Interventions to manage preterm labor aim at reducing serious complications arising from preterm birth. These interventions include medications called tocolytics to slow down labor, antenatal corticosteroids to help the fetus survive preterm birth, and antibiotics to prevent infection when preterm prelabor rupture of membranes (pPROM) occurs.
Care for babies born prematurely should, where possible, include:
- Essential and extra newborn care, especially feeding support
- Neonatal resuscitation
- Kangaroo Mother Care
- Chlorhexidine for umbilical cord care
- Comprehensive neonatal intensive care, where capacity allows
- Management of premature babies with complications, especially respiratory distress syndrome and infection
Featured Resources on Preterm Birth
- Download the preterm birth briefer
- Editorial: 15 million preterm births annually: what has changed this year?
- Born Too Soon: The Global Action Report for Preterm Birth, May, 2012)
- New national, regional and worldwide estimates of preterm birth rated from the Lancet.
- FIGO/IPA joint statement on preterm birth
- Learn more about Kangaroo Mother Care
Photo: Ian P. Hurley/Save the Children
Take action for preterm birth
The third annual World Prematurity Day is November 17, 2013. See how nations around the world joined the movement last year, making commitments to tackle the growing problem of preterm birth.
Experts from across the reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health field write about preterm birth as it relates to cross-cutting work including the MDGs, family planning, the UN Commission on Life Saving Commodities for Women and Children, and the Every Woman Every Child movement.
Read the Born Too Soon blog series:
Amelia's story, by Mandy Daly
Saving premature babies by strengthening facility-based care in India, by Ashok Deorari
Premature birth should not lead to premature death, by Louise Holly
Let's Change the Face of Preterm Birth, by Carole Presern
What if? #WorldPrematurityDay, by Kyle Hodges
A New Study Says We Can't Prevent Most Preterm Births, So What Now?, by Carolyn Miles
Can we cross the last ten feet to save newborn lives from preterm birth? by Gary Darmstadt, Cyril Engmann, Wendy Prosser and Joel Segre
Myths and Misconceptions about Preterm Birth, by Mary Kinney
The True Power of Parents, by Nicole Thiele
Preterm Birth Can Be Reduced if Critical Actions Are Taken, by Michael Gravett
Join the Global Movement to Tackle Preterm Birth, by JoAnn Paradis
How can we address preterm birth?
Watch the short interview with Save the Children's Joy Lawn, as she outlines what can be done to improve care for preterm babies and how countries like Malawi are taking action.