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During the months of April and May each year, nearly 700 communities across the country – including ours – come together to raise money and promote awareness of healthy pregnancies and healthy babies.

Missoula’s March for Babies walk on May 31 – like many similar fundraiser events to be held nationwide – is part of a large-scale effort by the March of Dimes to fund research that helps babies begin healthy lives.

In the United States, preterm birth – when a baby is born prior to 37 weeks gestation – is the leading cause of infant mortality. Approximately 450,000 babies are born preterm in the U.S. each year, and 12 percent of those babies do not survive. Sadly, the U.S. trails other developed nations in its rates of babies born preterm.

In Montana, preemies account for approximately 11 percent of infant deaths statewide. Those who do survive are at a much greater risk for developing other serious health complications, including but not limited to respiratory distress syndrome, intraventricular hemorrhaging, apnea, and infections and illness due to underdeveloped immune systems.

Why a pregnant woman goes into labor too early is not always understood. In some instances, however, preterm birth is preventable. Educating women of childbearing age (15-44) on leading a healthy lifestyle and early signs of preterm labor have been shown to have a significant impact on reducing preterm birth rates.

Here’s what we do know about reducing the risks of preterm birth:

  • Quit smoking before or early in pregnancy.
  • Eliminate elective deliveries before 39 weeks gestation; in other words, those that are not medically necessary.
  • Exercise regularly, take prenatal vitamins and eat a variety of healthy foods – particularly fruits and vegetables – before and during pregnancy.
  • Promote early access to prenatal care; it serves as a critical tool to educate women on how to take good care of themselves throughout their pregnancy.
  • Early prenatal care, in the first 8-10 weeks, also identifies and manages women’s risk factors and health conditions.
  • Screen for anxiety and depression in early and mid-pregnancy.
  • Support women with substance abuse problems in getting the help they need to stop abusing drugs and alcohol.
  • Educate women on the early warning signs and symptoms of preterm labor so that they seek medical attention early.
  • Encourage the use of stress management and relaxation techniques (stress hormones can increase risk of preterm birth).

While preventive measures are critical steps we as a community can take toward reducing the rate of babies born prematurely, there is still much that we, as medical professionals, do not understand about why preterm births occur and everything that can be done to prevent them.

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By supporting organizations and events like the March for Babies walk, Missoula can be part of a nationwide effort to fund further research aimed at helping moms have healthy, full-term pregnancies.

Consider donating to or taking part in Missoula’s March for Babies. The 2014 event is a noncompetitive 5-kilometer walk set for 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 31 at Community Medical Center.

For more information or to register, visit marchforbabies.org.

Dr. Michael Mercy is PacificSource Health Plans’ medical director for Idaho and Montana Health Services. Sheila Spear is a registered nurse and oversees prenatal programs for PacificSource Health Plans members.

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