Op-ed: How we can invest in, and change, the US trend of premature births

REUTERS/Monicah Mwang

For the most part, October 19, 2011 was a typical day. It was around 9:30 pm that evening when things started to quickly change for the worse. By 11:23 pm, I had become a father to a new born baby girl weighing just 4 pounds, 2 ounces, born at just 32 weeks. What did the obstetrician mean when he spoke to me in the hallway to make sure I understood the baby would have to stay in the hospital for about six weeks before coming home? What was a N.I.C.U.? What just happened?

October 19, 2011 was no longer a regular day — it was a day that changed my life. It was a day that introduced me to preterm labor, the fragility of babies born too soon, and inspired me to the fight for the end of prematurity.

I consider my wife and I to be among the lucky ones for it was a day shy of two weeks, not six, when we were able to take our daughter home for the very first time. As we settled into our new life, with a baby girl with severe digestive issues caused by underdevelopment, we were introduced to the March of Dimes and their goal of ending prematurity. After our frightful experience with our daughter, it became our mission as well. 

On Sunday, April 25, 2021, my family will be participating in our ninth March for Babies in support of the March of Dimes, and their research to help end prematurity. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, family teams such as mine will be marching in neighborhoods throughout the New York, and New Jersey, area in small groups.

According to the March of Dimes Report Card, for the fourth consecutive year, the United States’ preterm birth rate has increased. The reality that one in 10 babies born in the United States is born early is unacceptable to us and should be to you as well. Why is the number so high and what is being done to change the trajectory of these statistics?

The federal government, along with individual states, must work to address this public health crisis impacting families throughout the United States. We must step up our game in our pursuit of healthier moms and babies, for with every passing day, we are losing too much.

There are three ways in which we can stand up to prematurity. First, we need to increase funding for research awarded by the federal government. While the March of Dimes funds research centers, the federal budget must contribute more substantially. In the Fiscal Year 2020 federal budget, there was no funding awarded for prematurity research. This must change and your help is needed to make this happen. Take some time to make your voice heard and contact your member of Congress and your two United States Senators. Ask them for their support to give babies a chance at a healthier start to life.

Secondly, at the national and at the state level, we must work to improve access to healthcare for moms and babies. We need to make sure that pregnant moms of all races and economic status do not hold back from doctor visits for fear of cost. A greater ability for expectant mothers to receive the appropriate medical care, including high risk specialists, will lead to healthier babies being born. And that health care access must carry through to the newborn baby.

Finally, we need to improve health education for expectant mothers. We need to work with families during pregnancy to remind them of the dangerous connection between tobacco, substance abuse, and preterm birth. This outreach can also play a role in reducing the number of babies born too soon.

The time is now to turn these numbers around. The time is now for you to join in advocating for health care access, additional funding for research to end prematurity, and to support efforts to educate expectant mothers of how in their personal care, they can give their child a better start at life.

Until we eliminate premature births, there will be many more typical days that change quickly for expectant parents. With each of the babies born unexpectedly on days like this, there is a great risk, and their first stop on life’s journey becomes an incubator in the N.I.C.U. Imagine how great it would be if many of these incubators were empty because premature births were no more.

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