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Dr. Jennifer L. Howse Headshot

The 2 Things That Could Keep Premature Babies Alive

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Karim was born in Beirut after only 24 weeks of pregnancy. Tuntufye was born in Malawi after about 28 weeks of pregnancy.

Karim spent four months in a neonatal intensive care unit as his mother watched her baby fight daily for his life.

Unfortunately, there was no NICU for Tuntufye. For months, her mother carried her skin-to-skin, also known as Kangaroo Care, and fed her hourly, until Tuntufye finally began to gain weight.

Today, Karim is four and Tuntufye is seven, and both are now thriving.

baby

However, not all babies are so lucky. Premature birth is the leading cause of death in the first month of life. More than 15 million babies are born before 37 weeks of pregnancy every year, and one million of those babies die before they are one month old.

The prevention of premature births is a process that involves the entire life-course of a woman of child bearing age - from healthy lifestyle and diet to management of disease conditions to getting pregnant at the right time. Improving prevention means improving our health care systems, our training and incentives.

November 17 was the third annual World Prematurity Day and organizations from around the world joined the March of Dimes to call attention to this global problem and what can be done to prevent it.

Along with our volunteers, my colleagues and I are working hard to continue the March of Dimes' 75-year legacy of helping all babies start a healthy, long life. We are focused on finding a way to prevent premature birth, a tragic occurrence that affects far too many babies every year.

About 75 percent of the babies who don't survive their early birth could have been saved using two simple, low cost treatments called antenatal steroids and Kangaroo Care.

Antenatal steroid injections are given to the mother before delivering the baby in order to speed up development of the baby's lungs, giving them a better chance to breathe on their own outside the womb.

Kangaroo care is when a newborn baby is placed directly on the mother or father's chest. The skin to skin contact warms the baby and helps regulate baby's body temperature and heartbeat. In fact, Kangaroo care is how Tuntufye's mother kept her warm and comfortable. It requires no special equipment and can be practiced anywhere. Unfortunately, many people don't know enough about this practice, and more training is needed worldwide.

Here in the United States, where high-tech care is the norm, some parents are reluctant to hold their own baby for fear of disconnecting a monitor or upsetting the baby. One study found that although most nurses are aware of Kangaroo care, it is not routinely offered to parents. The March of Dimes believes it's important for parents to be active participants in their baby's care and kangaroo care is an excellent place to start.

Societies need to make the same kinds of commitment to their health care systems that parents make in caring for their children. World Prematurity Day gives those of us in health care a clear call to make that commitment.

The March of Dimes, along with its corporate partners such as Johnson & Johnson, is working to improve the health of babies by preventing pre-term birth through our many programs, such as Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait. When we come together, we can make sure that Tuntufye, Karim, and many other babies continue to thrive past their first month of life.

For more information about our resources and educational programs, visit marchofdimes.com or nacersano.org. Find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.