November is Prematurity Awareness Month
November 17th is World Prematurity Day
Pregnancy is supposed to be one of the greatest joys a woman will ever experience…at least that’s what the cover of What to Expect When You’re Expecting leads you to believe. People use a lot of flowery terms to describe the magical qualities a woman suddenly possesses once she has conceived. Glowing. Radiant. Powerful. Although scientifically correct, most women in the throes of morning sickness, swollen feet, and constantly changing body image probably feel less goddess-like.
Modern pregnancy, while less mystical than in ages past, is still idealized—or, at the very least, markedly optimistic. Pregnancy is fraught with real difficulties, even in a medically advanced society such as ours. Lots can go wrong. Pregnancies continue to have complications, such as preterm birth. Babies still die.
In 2017, preterm birth and low birth weight accounted for about 17% of infant deaths in the United States. Children born prematurely are also highly susceptible to breathing and vision problems. Many go deaf or have severe hearing damage. Developmental issues can also cause organ failures, or if born too early, can be born without developed brains or livers. As a result, cerebral issues can become irreversible.
When I was born, I was the size of a head of cauliflower. Cauliflower is the typical measurement for 27 weeks into pregnancy. For some reason, the size of babies in development is often expressed in terms of vegetables and fruit. Maybe it started with cravings. More likely, it’s because, at some point in our distant past, American women were experienced enough with produce to instantly identify that a cabbage is bigger than a grapefruit. Many of my friends today have never seen an intact head of cauliflower. “It’s the white, crunchy things next to broccoli and dip at parties,” we might say, unaware of its native shape and size.
I should not have found it odd when my cousin, a few months into her pregnancy posted a picture on Facebook holding an ear of corn to her stomach. The baby is getting so big! Call me a cynic, but declaring your baby to be the same size as a cash crop to your thirty-four FB followers seemed a tad bit strange. Corn has hair, at least.
Cauliflower is actually the size of a baby halfway through the term. I was half a side-dish undersized. My mother was diagnosed with antiphospholipid disease in the twentieth week of her pregnancy. The disease was known to cause complications, including miscarriages, stillbirths, premature delivery, slow fetal growth, and dangerously high blood pressure. She had issues with blood clotting and as a result, I didn’t have much fluid in the womb to keep me from smushing against her. I was growth restricted. Although late-term pregnancy was underway, my mother had to go into an emergency C-Section. When the doctors brought me into the room, weighing in at 2lb 14oz, I was able to fit into the palms of my father’s hands.
I am now twenty years old. I’ve never worn glasses, and I’ve been a competitive dancer since I was young. The only reminder of my restricted birth is my height—just five feet—and corresponding size-2 feet. At least I get clothes in the kid’s section for half the price.
Even now my mother still cries when she talks about the traumatic hours before and after giving birth. She was terrified to even hold me once she saw how small I was. I was born two days before Christmas Eve and spent my first holiday in an incubator. For a month I was observed for growth, but miraculously my organs were all intact and no brain damage could be found. I had no need for a respirator. I could go home in four weeks.
Millions of other babies aren’t as lucky.
There is no comprehensive guide to what causes premature birth. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), many preterm births are spontaneous or caused by chronic conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure. Around the world, the biggest determinant of the survival of babies born before the 37-week mark is the quality of available medical treatment. More than 90% of extremely preterm babies (less than 28 weeks) born in low-income countries die within the first few days of life, yet less than 10% of extremely preterm babies die in high-income settings. The WHO’s 10 countries with the highest rates of premature birth are primarily made up of African countries or ones from the Middle East with the least advanced medical care and highest wealth disparities. Unequal access to maternal care and higher poverty rates all increase a mother’s risk of delivering prematurely.
Organizations such as March of Dimes have introduced programs that aim to improve outcomes for mothers and babies, such as Supportive Pregnancy Care. Support and education for families with preterm babies, such as NICU Family Support, can make a difference in understanding preterm birth and the health issues that arise due to early births. Financial support is also made available for families who can’t afford the medical attention necessary to sustain the life and growth of their child. African American women are one of the largest groups of women impacted by premature births, where economic and social stresses compound to result in early births.
Following a decade of decline, preterm births are again on the rise in the United States. From 2016 to 2017, the preterm birth rate increased from 9.85% to 9.93%. Although it may appear to be a small fraction of a change, 3,000 more children were born before the 37-week mark. This spike in early births furthers the need for education and proper resources for mothers-to-be and access to professional medical care is vital for infant death prevention.
Graham’s Foundation, in collaboration with brands like Pampers. works to support mothers and families of premature babies by offering support and professional guidance for families in NICU. Online resources can be a tremendous help for families or single mothers looking for comfort. Organizations like these that work to decrease infant mortality, educate mothers, and assist financially are a blessing, and with babies no bigger than mangoes or pineapples, healthy children are the sweetest thing they can have.
Preterm birth and low birth weight is always a risk in pregnancy. The outcome can be serious physical or mental conditions—or nothing at all. I am still small, but have been fortunate to have no negative repercussions. I am lucky, and the recipient of outstanding medical care. Expanding care to lower income and less advantaged countries will, hopefully, allow more stories like mine to be told.
To find a healthcare professional, use HealthLynked. It is a first of its kind medical network built as a social ecosystem with a higher purpose – improving healthcare. Go to HealthLynked.com to learn more, sign up for free, connect with your doctor, find a new doctor, and securely store and share your health information. Download our HealthLynked app available on Apple and Android devices.
Contributing blog writer, Alexandria Dent, HealthLynked staff writer.
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