Health Check: March of Dimes prematurity summit

There are stories of babies born weeks and sometimes months too soon. But even one week can make a huge difference.

"Preterm birth is when a baby is born less than 37 weeks of gestation. A normal pregnancy occurs at 40 weeks and you would prefer not to deliver, unless there was a reason for the mom or the baby, before 39 weeks gestation," said Dr. Catherine Spong of the National Institutes of Health. "The risks to both the mom and baby are much higher if you deliver in that early term period, 37 or 38 weeks, as opposed to waiting to 39 weeks or 40 weeks."

Nationally, the preterm birth rate is almost 12 percent.

"We're fortunate in Rhode Island in that our preterm birth rate is slightly below the national average," said Dr. Katharine Wenstrom of Women & Infants Hospital.

Less than 11 percent is not good enough, experts say. But there are a variety of variables.

"We don't understand the biology of spontaneous preterm birth, why some women are susceptible and others aren't, and there are many social determinants. I don't think it's surprising to learn that preterm birth is more common in lower socio-economic women or women who are homeless," Wenstrom said.

That's why there are many programs and services in place in Rhode Island providing social work interventions.

"The March of Dimes has funded a lot of projects working to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancies. Fifty percent of all pregnancies in the country are unplanned," Wenstrom said.

Other programs in Rhode Island include working with women who've had a preterm birth in the past to help ensure a subsequent pregnancy goes to full term.

Spong also said there are consequences to late term births as well, women who don't give birth until after 42 weeks gestation. But that's far less common than premature births.