Education can help prevent preterm birth

Doctors and patients should discuss a pregnant woman's risk of preterm birth by the twelfth week of pregnancy, according to a commentary published in the November issue of Ob.Gyn. News.

"Education must be provided at the appropriate time to ensure adequate opportunities for preterm birth prevention, while not causing undue worry for the patient," March of Dimes Medical Director Alan Fleischman, MD, writes in the commentary. "As physicians, we play an important role in aiding our patients' awareness and understanding."

More than half a million babies are born preterm each year. Preterm birth, birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy, is a serious health problem that costs the United States more than $26 billion annually. It is the leading cause of newborn death, and babies who survive often face the risk of lifetime health challenges, including learning disabilities, cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities. The last few weeks of pregnancy are critical to a baby's health because many important organs, including the brain and lungs, are not completely developed until then.

Starting the conversation about preterm birth early and covering important topics, such as managing chronic conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure, which can contribute to preterm delivery, can help a woman have a healthy, full-term pregnancy, said Dr. Fleischman.

The commentary grew out of a June 2010 roundtable discussion by pediatric, neonatal and obstetric experts about a survey titled "SPEAKing (Survey on Perceptions, Experiences, Assessment and Knowledge) About Preterm Birth," sponsored by the March of Dimes, BabyCenter, an online resource, and Ther-Rx Corporation, a women's health-focused pharmaceutical company. The survey questioned new and expectant mothers, including those who previously experienced preterm birth, as well as obstetricians and maternal fetal medicine specialists.

The survey found that more than two-thirds of new or expectant moms do not know the correct definition of preterm birth, and most have not discussed the risks and consequences of preterm birth with their healthcare provider. Despite the fact that a previous preterm birth is a leading risk factor for preterm birth, the survey also found that nearly 40 percent of women who had a premature baby were not aware they have an increased risk for a subsequent preterm birth.

November is Prematurity Awareness Month®, when the March of Dimes asks the nation to focus its attention on the serious problem of preterm birth. On November 17, the March of Dimes will mark the 8th annual Prematurity Awareness Day by issuing its 2010 Premature Birth Report Card, which grades the nation and the states on their preterm birth rates.

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