Addressing Preterm Labor and Birth

Woman in a hospital gown helping a premature baby sit up in an infant bed.

Preterm labor and birth—defined as labor and birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy—have long been difficult problems to solve worldwide. Learning how best to care for tiny infants born preterm, both immediately after birth and later in life, is a major NICHD goal.

NICHD research has made great strides in addressing the full spectrum of issues related to preterm labor and birth, including the following:

In 2006, a study conducted by NICHD’s Maternal-Fetal Medicine Units (MFMU) Network found that a synthetic form of the naturally occurring hormone progesterone reduced preterm birth by one-third among women who had previously given birth preterm. The findings were so robust that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the drug—called 17P—for the prevention of preterm birth among women at high risk.

Work to improve care for infants born preterm aligns well with efforts to understand and prevent preterm birth. NICHD’s Neonatal Research Network (NRN), established at the same time as the MFMU Network in 1986, studies treatments for the different health problems related to being born early. These and other findings and advances in technology have greatly increased survival rates for preterm infants over the last few decades. Some NRN findings include the following:

Other NICHD-funded research has also found that some preterm infants produce a protein that may help protect them from birth-related brain injury.

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