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Health & Baby

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More and More Babies Born Too Soon

Premature News
WebMD Feature

Aug. 6, 2001 -- Justin Washington could literally fit in the palms of his mother's cupped hands when he was born six years ago in a Nashville hospital. Dorenda Washington was one month past the halfway point in her pregnancy when she learned there was nothing more that could be done to stop her baby from coming.

Born at 24 weeks, weighing just 1 pound, 8 ounces, Justin remained in neonatal intensive care for more than four months and had countless surgeries before finally going home with his parents. Today he is a healthy, happy little boy who likes to swim and ride his bike and who wants to be president some day, his mom says. The March of Dimes chose Justin as their 2001 national ambassador to highlight the issue of premature birth, and the Washingtons now travel all over the country to bring attention to the issue.

"We are incredibly lucky," Dorenda Washington tells WebMD. "When they give you the news that your child is going to be born halfway through your pregnancy, and you don't know if he is going to survive, all you can do is pray and rely on the people who are trained to deal with this. They become family."

Dramatic Increase in Preterm Births

Premature births are on the rise in the U.S. Since the early 1980s, the rate of early deliveries has risen by 23%, and today approximately 11% of all births -- or 450,000 each year -- occur early. A full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks, and babies are considered premature if they are born prior to 37 weeks.

For largely unknown reasons, black women have twice the rate of preterm deliveries as white women, and this remains the case across the economic spectrum.

"It is one of the biggest frustrations for those of us in the field of maternal and child health," says Donald R. Mattison, medical director for the March of Dimes. "Infant [deaths are] falling, and we know much more than ever about improving maternal and infant health, but prematurity is getting worse."

It sounds paradoxical that premature deliveries are increasing at a time when clinicians know more than ever about keeping pregnant women and their babies healthy. But experts say medical advances actually explain most of the increase in early births. The main culprit, they say, is the increase in multiple births over the past 20 years due to the growing use of assisted reproduction techniques like in vitro fertilization.

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