November is National Prematurity Awareness Month in an effort to shed more light on the growing trend of babies being born prematurely. It takes a normal baby 40 weeks to develop before being born, and any baby born after less than 37 weeks is considered premature.

Dr. Joseph Hwang of the Perinatal Center of Iowa says it’s a problem that can have lots of long-term consequences for kids. He says pre-term birth is the leading cause of deaths among babies, and those who survive face complications such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, chronic lung disease, and vision and hearing loss.

The March of Dimes says 11.8% of the babies born in Iowa in 2004 were pre-term, and the rate of infants born pre-term in Iowa increased nearly 22% between 1994 and 2004. Hwang says the focus is on identifying the mothers who have the potential for pre-term births.

Hwang says there is no direct treatment to prevent pre-term birth, the only thing they can do is to identify who is at risk. He says there are patient profiles, ultrasound and chemical markers that can be used to try and determine the risk for pre-term birth. Hwang says there are other risk factors that could lead to pre-term birth, such as substance abuse, or the mother being over or under weight.

Hwang says there is one simple test that looks for a substance called fetal fibronectin, that can determine if a pre-term birth is a concern. He says it’s a chemical that’s like a biological glue that keeps the pregnancy in the uterus, and the discovery of the chemical indicates that there could be a problem. Hwang says this test helps rule out false alarms.

Hwang says that’s a major issue as a lot of women have false labor, and the test helps rule out the women who aren’t at risk for pre-term birth, so doctors can concentrate on those patients who are at risk. Hwang advises women to consult with your doctor to see if you might be at risk for pre-term birth, and to discuss steps you can take to reduce your risk factors.