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National Prematurity Awareness Month

Adult and infant hands togetherLearn more about premature birth, risk factors, and what you can do.

What is Premature Birth?

Premature (also known as preterm) birth refers to when a baby is born too early, before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Important growth and development occur throughout pregnancy—especially in the final months and weeks. Premature birth is a concern because babies born too soon miss out on this valuable time to grow and develop.

Premature birth is the biggest contributor for infant death, with most preterm-related deaths occurring among babies who were born very preterm (before 32 weeks). Babies who survive may spend weeks or months hospitalized in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and may face lifelong problems such as—

Infographic: In 2012, 1 of every 10 babies was born premature in the United States

In 2014, 1 of every 10 babies was born premature in the United States.

Premature Birth in the United States

In 2014, the premature birth rate in the United States was about 9.6%. The percentage of premature births in the United States has decreased 8% since 2007; however, large differences in risk of preterm birth remain for racial and ethnic groups. In 2014, black infants were about 50% more likely to be born preterm than white, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander infants. Reasons for this difference are an area of intense research.

Risk Factors

Even if a woman does everything "right" during pregnancy, she still can have a premature baby. Some things (called risk factors) can increase the chance that a woman will have a premature baby. There are several risk factors for premature birth, including ones that researchers have not yet identified.

In addition to race/ethnicity, some of the risk factors for preterm birth are—

  • Previous preterm birth
  • Being pregnant with more than one baby (twins, triplets, or more)
  • Problems with the uterus or cervix
  • Chronic health problems in the mother, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and clotting disorders
  • Certain infections during pregnancy
  • Cigarette smoking, alcohol use, or illegal drug use during pregnancy
Pregnant woman

Although most black women give birth at term, on average, black women are about 50% more likely to have a premature baby compared to white women.

Premature Birth: What to Know

Doctors sometimes need to deliver a baby early because of concerns for the health of the mother or the baby. An early delivery should only be considered when there is a medical reason to do so. If a pregnant woman is healthy and the pregnancy is progressing well, it is best to let the baby come on his or her own time. [316 KB]

Although most babies born just a few weeks early do well and have no health issues, some do have more health problems than full term babies. For example, a baby born at 35 weeks is more likely to have—

  • Jaundice (skin and whites of eyes look yellow) because his or her liver may not be fully developed
  • Breathing and respiratory problems
  • A longer hospital stay

What Can I Do?

There are things that women can do to improve their health, lower the risk of having a premature baby, and help their baby be healthy. These include—

  • Quit smoking. For help in quitting, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) or visit Tobacco Use and Pregnancy: Resources
  • Avoid alcohol and illicit drugs
  • See your health care provider for a medical checkup before pregnancy. Get prenatal care as soon as you think you may be pregnant, and throughout your pregnancy
  • Talk to your health care provider about—
    • How to best control diseases such as high blood pressure or diabetes
    • A healthy diet and prenatal vitamins. It is important to take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily before and during early pregnancy
    • Concerns about pregnancy and any warning signs or symptoms of preterm labor that will need medical attention
    • The use of a progesterone medication (17-alpha hydroxyprogesterone caproate, or 17P) if you had a previous preterm birth
    • Breastfeeding. Breast milk is the best food for babies, whether they are born early or at term

Warning Signs of Preterm Labor

In most cases, preterm labor begins unexpectedly and with no known cause. It’s important to seek care if you think you might be having preterm labor, because your doctor may be able to help you and your baby.

Like regular labor, the warning signs are—

  • Contractions (the abdomen tightens like a fist) every 10 minutes or more often
  • Change in vaginal discharge (a significant increase in the amount of discharge or leaking fluid or bleeding from the vagina)
  • Pelvic pressure—the feeling that the baby is pushing down
  • Low, dull backache
  • Cramps that feel like a menstrual period
  • Abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea

Birth is a complex and wonderful process. Fortunately, the outcome for most women is a full term, healthy baby. More research is still needed to understand the risk factors for premature birth, such as how family history, genetics, infections, race and ethnicity, nutrition, and environment may work together to put some women at greater risk for a premature delivery.

More Information

More Information

  • Preterm Birth—CDC's Division of Reproductive Health
    Promotes optimal reproductive, maternal, and infant health. CDC scientists and their partners are collaborating with states, university researchers, and partners in health care to understand why preterm births occur, and what can done to prevent prematurity.
  • Preterm Labor and Birth
    More information from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
  • Premature Babies
    The National Library of Medicine provides links to the latest news and research on preterm birth.
  • Premature Birth
    Learn more information about the care of premature babies from the Healthy Children website sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • Healthy Pregnancy
    Learn how to be healthy (before, during, and after pregnancy) and give your baby a healthy start to life.
  • CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities
    Promotes the health of babies, children, and adults, and enhances the potential for full, productive living.

March of Dimes Resources

  • Prematurity Campaign
    More information about premature birth and the March of Dimes prematurity campaign.
  • Share Your Story (Spanish language online community also available)
    Virtual community for parents with a baby in a neonatal intensive care unit.
  • Preterm Labor
    More information about signs of preterm labor, and includes common questions and answers.