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Lisa Gittens-Williams, M.D. Headshot

Too Many African-American Babies Born Too Soon

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Nearly one out of every six African-American babies in the United States is born premature. In Newark, New Jersey it's one in five. I am a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, and every day I see women who are at risk of delivering early.

I remember, quite dearly, one young African-American woman who came for her first prenatal visit at seven months of pregnancy. She had a prior baby who was born prematurely in another state, and the baby did well. Overwhelmed by the thought of motherhood, she did not seek out any community resources and had only recently learned about our practice. She was complaining of abdominal pain when I saw her. Her ultrasound confirmed that she was 28 weeks. The baby weighed slightly over two pounds. I diagnosed preterm labor and sent her to the hospital for care. She delivered a live baby girl one week later. Although the baby was premature, our interventions, including medication and excellent care for the newborn, allowed her to take the baby home about eight weeks later.

Preterm birth is a serious and costly health problem, and unfortunately African-American babies have the highest preterm birth rate of any other racial or ethic group. African-American women are more than one and a half times as likely to have a preterm baby compared to white women. The reasons for these differences are still under investigation, and actions to reduce the preterm birth rate in this population are underway.

In Newark, the March of Dimes, local health officials, and Johnson & Johnson launched Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait®, a community-based program to help give more babies a healthy start in life.

The Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait program is a preterm birth prevention initiative. It provides education for pregnant women, health care providers and the community about the serious long term health consequences of an early birth, the risk factors for preterm birth and strategies for reducing that risk.

There are things a woman can do to help give her baby a healthy start in life and reduce her risk of having a preterm baby.

These are five of the ways to increase the chances of having a healthy baby:

1. Arrange a preconception check-up with a health care provider before getting pregnant to make sure you are in the best heath possible.

2. Seek early prenatal care. All women should visit with their health care provider as soon as pregnancy is recognized so that their pregnancy can be managed. Women who have already had a preterm infant may be candidates for interventions that can reduce the chance of having another premature baby.

3. Manage your medical problems. Women with diabetes, hypertension or other medical problems should plan their pregnancies. Work with your doctor to first get these conditions under control before attempting pregnancy.

4. Manage medications. Women who take medications should make sure that any medication they are taking is safe in pregnancy.

5. Develop healthy habits. Avoid stress, tobacco, alcohol or the use of other illicit drugs. Take a multivitamin with folic acid every day to reduce the chance of birth defects. Eat properly and get to a healthy weight.

Preterm birth is the leading cause of newborn death. Babies who survive an early birth face an increased risk of life-long health consequences, such as breathing problems, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities and other conditions. Every week of pregnancy is crucial to a newborn's health, and babies do much more than gain weight during the last few weeks of pregnancy.

Important organs, such as the lungs and brain, are still developing. In fact, at 35 weeks of pregnancy, a baby's brain weighs only two-thirds of what it will weigh at 39 to 40 weeks. Through education, interventions, and strengthening community resources, the Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait program aims to reduce preterm birth. My hope is that African American moms such as the one that I described - and indeed, all moms - have healthy full-term infants. Certainly, "Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait."

Click on these links to learn more about Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait-Newark, preterm birth, and the New Jersey Medical School Obstetrics department.