Early Term Babies at Risk

The Birth
Creative Commons License photo credit: zosogis

Traditionally, full term for pregnancy has been defined as 37 weeks or later. Until very recently, it was assumed that a baby born any time after 37 weeks wouldn’t face the same risks that preemies face.

To be sure, there are significant risks of having a baby prior to 37 weeks. According to a recent study, however, babies that are born in the 37th and 38th weeks of pregnancy may also face a number of difficulties.

This research looks at infant health in babies born in the 37th and 38th week and compares it with infant health in babies born during weeks 39 and 40 of pregnancy. The data compiled was from 46 million births in the United States, between 1995 and 2006.

Here are some of the findings:

  • There has been a dramatic decline in the number of babies being born at 40 weeks or after. It dropped from 60 percent to 54 percent of births.
  • There was also an increase from 22 to 29 percent of babies born during those “early term” weeks of week 37 and 38.
  • Early term babies had a much more staggering mortality rate. They were twice as likely to die during the first year. For babies born in weeks 37 and 38, there were 3.9 deaths per thousand babies. For those born at 40 weeks or later, there were only 1.9 deaths.
  • There were specific patterns to these deaths. The most common causes were SIDS, accidents, birth defects, or a lack of oxygen before birth.
  • These statistics held consistent across ethnic and socioeconomic strata.

Of course, there are sometimes good reasons to have an early term delivery. Sometimes, the mother or baby are facing specific health risks that can be diminished by delivering earlier.

The research suggest, however, that unless there is an immediate danger it’s more risky to have an early term baby than it is to wait the full 40 weeks.

So, what do you think? Should a woman always wait the full 40 weeks, as long as there’s not a compelling medical reason not to?

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