Pregnancy is nine months of preparation, planning and anticipation. But in about one in 10 pregnancies, the baby comes early. Called preterm or premature birth, these babies are born before 37 weeks of gestation. Most pregnancies last about 40 weeks.

The challenge with being born preterm is that these babies miss out on significant growth and development that happens in the final weeks of gestation. As a result, preterm birth is a leading cause of infant mortality, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Babies who survive can have short- and long-term health problems.

The good news is that that progress is being made. More premature babies are surviving than at any other time, and more of them are going on to lead healthy, normal lives. The downside is that there is still more work to be done.

Understanding Risk Factors

Between 2007 and 2014, the CDC reports that the national rate of preterm birth declined by 8%. Over the last three years, however, this rate has increased incrementally. This is according to the annual premature birth report card from March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization that works to improve maternal and infant health. Experts believe that this increase has at least something to do with the substantial racial and ethnic disparities that persist. In 2015, the rate of preterm birth among African-American women (13.4%) was about 50% higher than the rate of preterm birth among white women (8.9%).

There’s also a lot that remains unknown about why some babies are born too soon. Even women who appear to do everything “right” can deliver early. According to one estimate, more than 80% of preterm births are unanticipated, and the cause for nearly half of all preterm births is unknown.

That being said, there are some known factors that increase the risk of preterm birth: the young or advanced age of the mother, cigarette or substance abuse, stress, depression, and carrying more than one baby. Social determinants, like poverty, a lack of access to quality healthcare, discrimination, and underemployment, also play a role.

Expert Care in the Community

Regardless of the cause, a premature baby is in the most capable hands in Mary Washington Hospital’s Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Each year we admit about 330 babies and provide care for newborns as small as a pound.

Mary Washington Healthcare is proud to partner with Children’s National Health System, top-ranked for newborn intensive care. Led by Medical Director Joshua Attridge, MD, our NICU is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week by board-certified neonatologists. Full-time neonatologists and neonatal nurse practitioners from Children’s National manage the care of the babies in our NICU. The partnership also connects Mary Washington to pediatric subspecialties and provides collaborative research opportunities between Mary Washington and Children’s National.

In addition to our neonatologists, we have a highly specialized team that includes neonatal nurse practitioners, registered nurses, respiratory therapists, physical and occupational therapists, case managers, dietitians, and lactation consultants.

“Our nurses provide an overview to help our parents understand what their babies are going through, what the plan of care looks like,” says Nancy Young, BSN, RNC-NIC, NICU Nurse Manager at Mary Washington Hospital. “Part of the plan of care for our patients and their families is to really include them in the care delivery model. Our parents and support persons will help with changing diapers, taking temperatures, and help us with repositioning. We also encourage early skin-to-skin contact and early breastfeeding.”

Our NICU also features a Neonatal Transport Team, which enables local hospitals without a Level III NICU to transfer newborns requiring a higher level of care to Mary Washington Hospital.

The early days for a pre-term infant and their parents can be filled with uncertainty. We’re prepared to offer the highest level of care possible at our NICU, and in doing so, become a voice that you can trust.

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