Better Care for Babies Born Too Soon
Each year, an estimated 15 million babies around the world—one in ten—are born prematurely1, making preterm birth one of the leading causes of death for children under the age of five. When a baby is born too soon, health complications due to their early birth can decrease their chances of survival and their ability to live long, healthy lives. But by supporting families, as well as health professionals and the systems they work in, we can reduce the burden of preterm births where it is greatest.
The risk of death, as well as short- and long-term disabilities, for preterm babies, is significantly higher than babies born full-term: complications from preterm birth account for nearly one million deaths each year.2 And babies who survive are more likely to have visual and hearing problems, learning disabilities, and other lifelong problems that negatively impact socio-economic outcomes not only for themselves, but also for their families, communities, and countries.
While the burden of premature births is severe, there are steps the global health community can take to improve care for babies who are born preterm:
Partner with parents of premature infants
Reducing the burden of preterm birth starts with partnership between health providers and parents. Health workers should engage parents in the care of preterm, hospitalized newborns, including communicating with them frequently, involving them in decision-making about their baby, and helping them to take on appropriate elements of care for their hospitalized babies. Not only do actively involved parents ensure positive results for breastfeeding and growth outcomes for their children, but they are also less stressed and better prepared to care for their child after they are discharged from the hospital.
Keep mom and baby together
The bond between a mother and her newborn is critical to the development of a preterm baby. Babies who receive skin-to-skin contact from their parents breastfeed better, have a lower risk of developing infection or hypothermia, and have a better chance at healthy brain development. They are also more likely to survive and reach their full potential than those who are kept separated from their mothers.3
Strengthen human resources for health
Governments, donors, professional societies, and academic/training institutions need to work together to develop and support the implementation of evidence- and needs-based policies that ensure the availability of high-quality providers, as well as the continuous development of their skills. These providers should be considered specialized professionals, deployed, and recruited according to their skill set, which is best supported by team-based on-site training, simulations, hands-on teaching, follow-up mentoring, and team problem-solving.
Provide moms and babies with high-quality health care before, during, and after birth
Most premature babies have a better chance of survival when provided with high-quality care. Since a mother is the primary caregiver for her small baby, quality postnatal care should also be made accessible for her, even while she is in the hospital focused on caring for her small, preterm baby. Her emotional well-being should also be assessed and supported during her stay in the hospital. Above all, health facilities should provide resources that support mothers and create policies that ensure she has access to her child at all times.
To ensure that all babies reach their full potential and reduce preventable death and disabilities associated with preterm birth, MOMENTUM works to strengthen individual and institutional capacity to offer high-quality, family-centered, and respectful care for mothers and babies in our partner countries, including fragile and humanitarian settings.
We also aim to improve outcomes for preterm babies by adapting, implementing, and measuring the WHO’s Quality of Care Standards for Small and Sick Newborns in the places where we work.
As we enter a new decade, there are many opportunities to prevent premature birth and care for preterm babies, including the provision of quality, respectful care through pregnancy, birth, and childhood. No matter where they are born, premature babies should have access to the care they need to lead healthy, happy lives.
Tamar Chitashvili is the Maternal & Newborn Health Lead for MOMENTUM Integrated Health Resilience (MIHR). MIHR works to improve access to and availability of high-quality, respectful, and person-centered MNCH/FP/RH care in fragile and conflict-affected settings. This project enhances coordination between development and humanitarian organizations and strengthens the resilience of individuals, families, and communities, supporting countries to progress on their Journey to Self-Reliance.
Neena Khadka is the Newborn Health Focal Point for MOMENTUM Country and Global Leadership (MCGL). MCGL works in tandem with country governments and local nongovernmental organizations to provide targeted technical and capacity development assistance and contribute to the global technical leadership and policy dialogue on improving measurable outcomes for MNCH/FP/RH care.
- World Health Organization. Preterm Birth. Last updated 19 February 2018. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/preterm-birth
- United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Every Child Alive: the urgent need to end newborn deaths. 2018. https://data.unicef.org/resources/every-child-alive-urgent-need-end-newborn-deaths/
- Jefferies, A. L., & Canadian Paediatric Society, Fetus and Newborn Committee. “Kangaroo care for the preterm infant and family.” Paediatrics & child health, 17, no.3: 141–146. https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/17.3.141