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Rate Of Premature Babies On The Rise

State, Nation See Slight Increase After Steady Decline

John Bazemore/AP Photo

The overall rate of premature babies born in Wisconsin has gone up slightly to 9.4 percent. But in some areas of the state, it’s much higher.

In Racine County, preterm births are nearly 11 percent. That compares to Waukesha County where 8 percent of babies are born before 37 weeks of pregnancy.

Preterm birth can negatively affect development, said Donald Weber, an OB-GYN in Eau Claire who chairs a March of Dimes committee on maternal and child health.

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“A baby’s brain may grow 50 percent in size from 35 to 39 weeks,” Weber said. “So there’s dramatic changes that go on in the baby’s brain in terms of maturity and readiness for life on the outside.”

Premature births in Wisconsin are more common among the low-income mothers and mothers of color, according to a March of Dimes report. Wisconsin’s efforts to reduce that disparity got poor marks. The state was ranked 21st in 2014. It sunk to 34th last year.

Weber said good prenatal care can improve birth outcomes, but doctors don’t fully understand all the reasons babies are born too soon. Known risk factors are the age of the mother, smoking, alcohol or drug use, and stress.

Wisconsin’s preterm birth rate went up 2 points last year. The national preterm rate also went up slightly; the March of Dimes says it was the first increase nationally in 8 years. Weber said preterm birth has become too “commonplace” and is “too accepted.” Advanced neonatal care is one reason why, he said.

“It has gotten to the point where people have gotten so lax about the idea of inducing (labor), sometimes for nonmedical reasons, because the neonatal care was so good that we felt that it was indeed safe for the baby to deliver early,” he said.

But Weber said research has shown there are substantial differences in development between babies born at 36 weeks compared to those born 37 weeks or later. So the March of Dimes encourages sustaining a pregnancy until 39 weeks if possible.

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