More and More Babies Born Too Soon
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
"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
For largely unknown reasons, black women have twice the rate of
preterm deliveries as white women, and this remains the case across the
"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.
Twin birth rates rose by 52% and high-order births (triplets or
more) rose by an astounding 404% between 1980 and 1997, according to figures
from the National Center for Health Statistics. There were only about 1,000
high-order births in the U.S. each year prior to the introduction of assisted
reproduction. Today, there are between 6,000 and 7,000.