Premature Birth Rate Is Dropping

Study Also Shows a Decline in the Birth Rate for Teenagers

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

July 9, 2010 -- The rate of premature births has dropped slightly for the second year in a row, according to a new federal report.

What is more, the rate of births to teens also has declined, the study shows.

The report, "America's Children in Brief: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2010," finds that in the period 2007-2008:

  • The percentage of infants born preterm (before 37 weeks) dropped from 12.7% to 12.3%.
  • Teen girls are having fewer babies. Births to adolescents dropped from 22.2 per 1,000 girls to 21.7.
  • The rate of children 17 years and under covered by health insurance at some time during the year rose from 89% to 90%.
  • The percentage of children 17 and under who are living with at least one parent employed full-time dropped from 77% to 75%.
  • The percentage of children 17 and under living in "food insecure" homes rose from 17% to 22%, the highest prevalence since monitoring began. The report defines "food security" as having access at all times to enough food for all family members to lead active, healthy lives.

"The decline in preterm births is encouraging," Alan E. Guttmacher, MD, acting director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development, says in a news release. "Preterm infants are at higher risk for death in the first year of life, for serious illness in infancy, and in later life, for obesity and its associated complications."

Edward Sondik, PhD, director of the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, says in the same news release that the decline in births to teens is significant because it occurred after two years of increases.

Reading and Math Improvements

The report also shows improvements in children's education, including higher reading and math scores for eighth graders. In the period from 2007 to 2009:

  • Eighth graders' average mathematics scores increased from 281 to 283 on one scale of measurement, while fourth graders' scores were flat after rising for a number of years.
  • Eighth graders' average reading scores also increased, from 263 to 264, while scores of fourth graders did not change.
  • From 2008 to 2009, the percentage of teens 16-19 who were neither enrolled in school nor working increased from 8% to 9%. Black and Hispanic young people were more likely to be in that situation than white teens.

Guttmacher said in a telephone news briefing that the federal report presents 40 indicators of child well-being, including family and social environment, economic circumstances, health care, physical environment and safety, behavior, education, and health.

He says the drop in preterm births was mostly in later pregnancy -- those that occur at 34-36 weeks of gestation.

He says it's unclear why the rate of preterm births dropped, but that this matter is being investigated with a view toward further reducing the preterm birth rate.

Sondik says the decline in preterm births was seen in each of the three largest racial and ethnic groups, and that though small, "even a slight decrease in preterm birth is positive."

Despite improvements, however, he says about 136,000 babies were born to mothers 15-27 in 2008.

Unmarried Mothers

The research also sheds light on trends for unmarried mothers:

  • Children born to single mothers are at a higher risk for adverse consequences, such as being born at a low birth weight and living in poverty.
  • 41% of all births in 2008 were to unmarried mothers, up from 40% in 2007 and more than double the percentage of 30 years ago.
  • Though the number and percentage of all births to unmarried women have increased, the birth rate among unmarried women 15-44 decreased from 53 births for every 1,000 unmarried women in 2007 to 52 in 2008. The decrease is attributable to the fact that the total number of unmarried women in that age range increased.
  • 9% of children under 18 in 2008 had asthma, unchanged from 2007.
  • During 2007-2008, 19% of children 6-17 were obese, about the same as the 2005-2006 period.
  • In 2008, some 69% of recent high school grads had enrolled in college the fall after getting their diplomas, considerably higher than 49% in 1980.
  • The percentage of children 5-11 years old with untreated dental cavities declined from 27% in 1999-2004 to 20% in 2005-2008.
  • For youths 12-17 years old, the percentage with untreated dental cavities declined from 19% to 12% in the same two time periods.

"Looking at the data by income status for children in poverty, the percentage with untreated cavities was twice that of children who lived in families with incomes at or above 200% of the poverty level," Sondik says. "However, the percentage with untreated cavities declined across the board for all income levels."

The obesity rate for children today is triple what it was from 1976 to 1980, Sondik says.

He also points out that the percentage of teens who regularly smoke cigarettes is at its lowest level since data collection began in 1980.

In 2009, less than 3% of eighth graders reported smoking cigarettes every day, down from 10% in the mid-1990s. He says 6% of 10th graders smoked in 2009, about a third the rate of the mid-1990s, and 11% of 12th graders smoked daily, down from 25% in 1997.

In 2008, the researchers say, 90% of young adults had a high school diploma or an equivalent credential, up from 84% in 1980.


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SOURCES: News release, National Institutes of Health.

Alan Guttmacher, MD, acting director, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Edward Sondik, PhD, director, National Center for Health Statistics, CDC.

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