Premature birth

Premature birth - a problem no one understands

About premature birth

Premature birth describes all babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. In the UK, a baby is generally considered viable if it is born at 24 weeks, yet their chances of survival are only 50%.

Premature birth is the leading cause of childhood mortality in the world today. More significant than infection, trauma or cancer, premature birth affects some 15 million babies across the world each year, nearly 60,000 in the UK, and comes with a high emotional and financial cost to our society.

Being born too soon leaves many babies with lifelong disability. But the cause of premature birth is too often unexplained. And once labour is established, doctors are helpless to stop it.


Preterm birth is the No.1 cause of infant death and disability worldwide

Too many women go into labour prematurely – 1 in 13 babies are born too soon and there has been no decline in preterm birth rates in the last decade.

Too many babies are lost – every year, 15 million babies are born too soon. More than 1 million die before they are 5.

Too many children live a life with chronic illness and/or disabilities – there is a clear association between children born <30 weeks gestation and multiple disabilities in different developmental domains (cognitive, behaviourial, motor and neurological development) with 61% showing one or more different disabilities.

The impact on education – children born before 34 weeks gestation are more likely to have poorer reading and maths skills. Preterm children are more likely to experience difficulties with working memory and hand-eye coordination.

The emotional burden on families – parents of very preterm babies are at greater risk of developing post-natal depression.

Too many medical questions remain unanswered. 85% of patients delivering preterm have no idea they are at risk. Despite past efforts, there have been no new treatments introduced in the last 50 years, and too little is invested in medical research to make childbirth safer.

In 2006, the cost of preterm birth on the public sector was around £3 billion. Health economists at Oxford University indicated that if we can prolong all pregnancies destined to deliver preterm by a week, we can save the NHS over £260 million a year.

More information on preterm birth

  • The World Health Organisation publishes a fact-sheet on preterm birth.
  • Born Too Soon is a Global Action Report on Preterm Birth [WHO 2012] 
  • The Health Economics Research Centre (HERC) established by Oxford University conducted a study on the long-term economic costs of preterm birth in 2006-07, the last time a study of this scale was conducted in the UK.
  • EPICure is a series of studies of survival and later health among babies and young people who were born at extremely low gestations – between 22 and 26 weeks.

We need to invest in research on pregnancy and childbirth

Pregnancy remains one of the least explored aspects of human biology.

The area is scientifically complex and confusing with a history of theories that were misleading. Health problems that occur during pregnancy and childbirth are complex syndromes with multiple causes and multiple outcomes.

The biological pathways and interactions that result in adverse pregnancy outcomes can vary by context or population group. Research funding remains largely uncoordinated with a lack of clarity on the part of funders as to where the field is going. 

Borne is dedicated to advancing our understanding of pregnancy and childbirth. Better research will lead to better interventions to improve the lives of mothers and babies around the world.

Support research to stop babies being born too soon.