Babies born a few weeks too soon six times more likely to die

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Researchers in the United States say babies born just a few weeks too soon are six times more likely to die in their first week of life than full-term babies and are also three times more likely to die before their first birthday.

Dr. Joann Petrini, director of the March of Dimes Perinatal Data Center, and co-author of the study, says regardless of the cause, the death rate was higher for preterm babies which suggests they are a more vulnerable group.

The study analysed data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on preterm and full-term infant birth and death rates between 1995 and 2002 in all states.

A baby is considered full term if it is born between 37 and 41 weeks gestation; prematurity is defined as giving birth before 37 weeks.

Late preterm infants are born at 34 to 36 weeks gestation and account for 71 percent of all premature births and 12.5 percent of all births in the United States.

Dr. Petrini says recent studies have documented that these babies have more complications than their full-term counterparts.

The leading cause of death was birth defects, and preterm infants were found to be four times more likely than full-term babies to die of congenital deformities.

Dr. Petrini says even when this was excluded the rate of death was still higher in preterm infants.

The research highlights that late preterm babies are at risk for a broad range of medical complications, including breathing problems, trouble feeding, jaundice and slowed brain development.

Other causes of death included sepsis, complications of the placenta and other material complications, and sudden infant death syndrome.

According to Dr. Petrini increases in the numbers of multiple births have helped fuel a rise in late premature babies as about half of all twins and 90 percent of triplets are preterm.

Dr. Petrini says such decisions are complicated but even a few weeks can make a difference and doctors should consider this information when deciding whether to induce delivery or perform a C-section before a baby is full term.

Thirty percent of all deliveries are now C-sections.

The treatment of premature babies costs billions each year and treating late preterm babies is estimated to cost as much as 10 times more than for full-term babies.

The study appears in the Journal of Pediatrics.

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