The younger the gestational age of an infant, the more likely it is for the baby to suffer health complications. In the United States one-third of infant deaths have been linked to prematurity. Births that occur when a baby is born at 37 weeks gestation or less are considered premature births.

November marks the 7th Annual Prematurity Awareness Month(R), a time when the March of Dimes focuses the nation’s attention on the growing problem of premature birth (birth before 37 weeks gestation). Later this month, the March of Dimes will issue its 2009 Premature Birth Report Card. The report grades the nation and the states on their preterm birth rates and assesses states’ progress toward improving access to health care coverage for women of childbearing age, helping women quit smoking during pregnancy, and to preventing medically unnecessary c-sections prior to 39 weeks of pregnancy – three criteria that can reduce preterm birth rates.

In the United States, more than 540,000 babies are born too soon each year. Preterm birth is a serious health problem that costs the United States more than $26 billion annually, according to the Institute of Medicine. It is a leading cause of infant death, and babies who survive an early birth often face the risk of lifetime health challenges, including breathing problems, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and others. A March of Dimes report released in October found that 13 million babies worldwide were born preterm, and more than one million die each year.