Fewer premature babies were born in the US in 2008, representing the second year in a row that preterm births (births before the 37th week of pregnancy) dropped, according to a May 2010 report from the National Center for Health Statistics. After a long period of fairly steady increase, the US preterm birth rate declined in 2007 (from 12.8 to 12.7 percent), and then again in 2008 (to 12.3 percent), marking the first 2-year downturn in this rate in nearly three decades. Declines in preterm birth rates from 2006 to 2008 were observed for mothers of all age groups under age 40, for the three largest race and Hispanic origin groups, for the majority of all states, and for all types of deliveries.
What's behind the drop? It could be a decline in scheduled Cesarean sections for non-medical reasons, a practice that studies show increases the likelihood of preterm delivery (especially if a baby's due date is miscalculated).
"I think it is very likely that this decrease relates to the widely publicized criticism of delivering babies 'early' for a laundry list of poorly-defended indications," says Dr. Ian Holzman, chief of newborn medicine at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York City, said in a statement to ABC News."We are finally not scheduling inductions for convenience at less than 39 weeks," he says. "Similarly, Cesarean sections don't occur early unless there is a strong medical indication."
The report does deliver good news, but despite the drop in 2008, the US preterm birth rate remains higher than in any year from 1981 to 2002. As the March of Dimes points out, it still means 500,000 babies are born preterm in the US.
"Preterm birth is a serious health problem that costs the United States more than $26 billion annually. It is a leading cause of infant death, and babies who survive an early birth often face the risk of lifetime health challenges," the group says in a press statement.
Moms-to-be may be able to reduce their individual risk for preterm delivery by taking such steps as not smoking and drinking alcohol during pregnancy, reducing the amount of stress in their lives, and attending prenatal checkups, according to March of Dimes recommendations.