Understanding the mystery of preterm birth

November 12, 2013, University of Adelaide

Researchers at the University of Adelaide's Robinson Institute say there is still a lack of knowledge about the causes of preterm birth and what can be done to prevent it.

About one in every 10 babies is born too soon (less than 37 weeks gestation). This can carry immediate risks to the baby's health and survival because their brain and other organs are not fully developed, but there is also growing evidence to suggest that babies born preterm may be prone to educational and in later life.

Speaking in the lead up to World Prematurity Day (Sunday 17 November), the Robinson Institute's preterm research priority leader, Philippa Middleton, says preterm birth is a major problem throughout the world.

"Preterm birth is also still a mystery – often we do not know what has caused a baby to be born too soon. But we do know that there may be long-term consequences," Ms Middleton says.

"The rate of preterm birth has been static for a decade, and it's not going down in most parts of the world. When you consider how much the quality of healthcare has improved over that time, with no inroads into the number of preterm births, this is a real puzzle for researchers and clinicians.

"Factors such as having a first child later in life have been linked to the growing numbers of preterm births, but this is also part of a larger social shift," she says. "Avoiding non-medical caesareans and early inductions could help prevent some babies from being born too early.

"Programs to support pregnant women, particularly those women without access to a lot of resources, are very important. These include help to stop smoking and to improve nutrition," she says.

Ms Middleton says University of Adelaide researchers are working on three main areas in relation to prematurity: preventing preterm birth, predicting when it will occur, and responding to preterm birth with interventions that offer children the best chance of life physically, intellectually and socially. All three areas involve gaining a better understanding the biology and genetics of preterm birth.

"At the Robinson Institute, we've been making great progress around improving outcomes for babies born early – there has been some really promising work done on improving nutrition and lung and brain development in , before and after they're born, to give just a few examples. Prevention really is the 'Holy Grail', but no-one in the world has been able to crack it yet. It's something we'll keep working very hard to achieve," she says.

The Director of The Robinson Institute, Professor Sarah Robertson, says the Institute has secured funding as part of an international program from The Gates Foundation to help address how to prevent .

"The challenge is to understand how factors including infection, stress and immune responses interact in some women," she says. "Once we have the biology sorted out, then we can test new interventions to prevent the birth process happening too early."

Explore further: Brain mapping study to improve outcomes for preterm infants

Related Stories

Brain mapping study to improve outcomes for preterm infants

October 22, 2013
A University of Queensland study into how premature babies' brains develop will lead to the earlier diagnosis of brain impairment in preterm children.

California receives 'A' grade on Preterm Birth Report Card

November 4, 2013
California has improved its grade on the March of Dimes 2013 Premature Birth report card, moving from a 'B' grade in 2012 to an 'A' grade in 2013.

US preterm birth rate drops to 15-year low

November 1, 2013
Six states – Alaska, California, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon and Vermont – earned an "A" on the March of Dimes 2013 Premature Birth Report Card as their preterm birth rates met the March of Dimes 9.6 percent goal. The ...

Low vitamin D levels during pregnancy associated with preterm birth in non-white mothers

October 30, 2013
African-American and Puerto Rican women who have low levels of vitamin D during pregnancy are more likely to go into labor early and give birth to preterm babies, research led by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School ...

Smoking + asthma + pregnant = a dangerous combination

September 5, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—New research from the University of Adelaide has shown for the first time that pregnant women who smoke as well as having asthma are greatly increasing the risk of complications for themselves and their ...

Study finds residence in US a risk factor for preterm birth

February 9, 2012
In a study to be presented today at the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine's annual meeting, The Pregnancy Meeting, in Dallas, Texas, researchers will report findings that indicate that duration of stay in the United States ...

Recommended for you

Study shows how fetal infections may cause adult heart disease

January 23, 2018
Recent studies have shown that infants born prematurely have a higher risk of developing heart disease later in life. Now, a study led by researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle shows that, ...

Rise in preterm births linked to clinical intervention

January 18, 2018
Research at the University of Adelaide shows preterm births in South Australia have increased by 40 percent over 28 years and early intervention by medical professionals has resulted in the majority of the increase.

New report calls into question effectiveness of pregnancy anti-nausea drug

January 17, 2018
Previously unpublished information from the clinical trial that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relied on to approve the most commonly prescribed medicine for nausea in pregnancy indicates the drug is not effective, ...

New study finds 'baby brain' is real, but the cause remains mysterious

January 15, 2018
So-called "baby brain" refers to increased forgetfulness, inattention, and mental "fogginess" reported by four out of five pregnant women. These changes in brain function during pregnancy have long been recognised in midwifery ...

Sleep quality improves with help of incontinence drug

January 12, 2018
A drug used to curtail episodes of urinary incontinence in women also improves quality of sleep, a researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine reports.

Frozen embryos result in just as many live births in IVF

January 10, 2018
Freezing and subsequent transfer of embryos gives infertile couples just as much of a chance of having a child as using fresh embryos for in vitro fertilization (IVF), research from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Adelaide, ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.