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Preterm Births and Midwifery

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The day of birth should be among the happiest days for a family. However, this joy may turn into sorrow and anguish when the baby is born preterm (before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy) and struggles for survival. Worldwide, an estimated 15 million babies are born preterm, which is more than 1 in 10. Complications due to preterm birth are the single leading cause of neonatal deaths, accounting for 35% of the 3.1 million neonatal deaths every year. Among the babies who survive, some may face life-long health issues related to preterm birth such as hearing, visual and learning disabilities.

Preventing preterm birth starts with a healthy pregnancy. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) as the lead United Nations agency on sexual and reproductive health is committed to ensuring that women have a safe and healthy pregnancy and childbirth, thereby also reducing newborn lives lost due to prematurity.

UNFPA addresses the issue of preterm births through initiatives such as:

  • Access to quality family planning information; a steady, reliable supply of quality contraceptives; and strengthening national health systems to provide quality contraceptive services.
  • Youth sensitive, gender responsive programs on adolescent sexual and reproductive health, comprehensive sexuality education and ending child marriage. Young pregnant teenage girls are at higher risk of several adverse pregnancy related outcomes including low birth weight, preterm delivery, and infections compared with mothers aged 20–24 years. These programs contribute towards prevention of preterm births.
  • Health system strengthening helps build quality maternal and newborn health programs with particular focus on continuity of quality midwifery care through its global midwifery program. Robust midwifery led continuity of care services have been shown to reduce the risk of prematurity.

UNFPA continues to invest significantly in educating and training midwives to deliver quality maternal and newborn health care, globally in over 125 countries. Midwives are key caregivers and providers of a safe, positive and respectful pregnancy experience to all women.

This includes provision of quality antenatal care which is essential to detect any danger signs that could potentially lead to preterm birth, so that all at-risk mothers can be properly monitored and managed. Midwives can also help save the lives of preterm babies with essential care during birth and in the postnatal period such as kangaroo mother care (skin-to-skin bonding time) and antibiotics to treat newborn infections. In addition to the immediate pregnancy and child birth related care, midwives provide family planning counseling and services and culturally sensitive counseling on health and nutrition that directly or indirectly will influence the outcome of a full-term and preterm birth.

UNFPA has helped train over 150,000 midwives since 2009 and has equipped hundreds of midwifery schools, updated curricula and trained midwifery tutors. In 2021, UNFPA, in collaboration with the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, will launch a global initiative to strengthen and scale up quality preservice education of midwives using a standardized package of evidence-based approaches and teaching and training modules that focus on the competencies of midwives.

A well-educated midwifery workforce can help stem the tide of babies born too soon. We call upon all global partners to engage in this important endeavor of training midwives that could help avert millions of maternal and newborn deaths, including preterm births and stillbirths each year.