A world-wide boom in premature babies is creating a public health time-bomb, doctors have warned. The number of premature births is soaring, imposing a growing burden on families and increased pressure on health and education services.
A report by the US Institute of Medicine says premature births, defined as less than 37 weeks gestation, have risen by 30 per cent in the past 25 years. In 2004 they accounted for 12.5 per cent of all births.
Older mothers and increasing obesity are among the factors thought to be driving the trend, which is putting future generations at risk.
More than a quarter of babies born before 35 weeks will require help in school and a quarter of those born before 25 weeks have severe long-term problems.
The Institute of Medicine estimates premature babies cost $26bn (£13.8bn) a year in health and education services, more than $50,000 a head, and describes it as a "growing public health problem". It says it is "not receiving the attention and funding necessary to fully understand its causes".
The warning comes less than six months after Danish scientists reported a 22 per cent rise in premature babies between 1995 and 2004. Among low-risk women, the rise was even higher at 51 per cent.
Specialists say a similar increase is likely to be under way in Britain, where there are about 45,000 premature births a year.
Andrew Shennan, the head of obstetrics at St Thomas Hospital, London, said the postponement of motherhood and increasing obesity were "good candidates" to explain the increases.
"Premature babies are at great risk of death and disability and the health burden to the population will not change unless the number can be reduced," he said.
Donna Gough's daughter, Daisy, was born on 19 February, 15 weeks premature. She weighed 1lb 10oz and spent the first three months of her life in hospital.
"It was scary. She was born in the [amniotic] sac. She did not breathe at first and required heart massage and a shot of adrenaline. She was on a ventilator for nine days and in an incubator for six weeks."
Daisy came home on 18 May, just before her due date, and is growing fast. Donna said: "It was daunting at first. There was a high risk she would stop breathing and the hospital sent her with an alarm. But she has just been weighed and she is nine pounds. She is doing well now. We are grateful to the medical team. Without them she wouldn't be here."
The growing demand on the neonatal service was revealed by a survey which found nine out of 10 of the highest dependency neonatal intensive care units closed to new admissions at least once last year.
Emily Robinson, the campaigns manager of Bliss, the premature baby charity which conducted the survey, said: "That was up from 80 per cent last year. There is definitely an upward trend in premature births and it is putting growing pressure on services. The biggest problem is lack of staff leading to closures, which means vulnerable babies have to be transferred across the country."
Research published yesterday shows that measuring the brain development of premature babies in the first weeks of life can help to predict which will have difficulties later on.
A team from Imperial College, London, found that babies with a smaller brain surface measured with an MRI scanner had poorer mental skills at age two. The findings are published in the online journal Public Library of Medicine.Reuse content