However, experts warn that any delivery short of 39 weeks puts a baby at higher risk of respiratory distress, sepsis (blood infection) and needing to be placed in the neonatal intensive care unit, according to background information in the study. Only one-quarter of new moms realized 39 to 40 weeks was safest.
Premature births are a growing problem in the United States. In fact, the percentage of babies born preterm rose by more than 20 percent from 1990 to 2006, according to a report released in November by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics.
Technically, the World Health Organization and other major medical organizations define preterm births as babies born before 37 weeks. But that definition was developed some 50 years ago and is outdated, said Dr. Alan Fleischman, medical director for the March of Dimes.
More recently, studies have shown that babies born even a bit too early -- at 37 or 38 weeks -- have a greater chance of chronic respiratory disease and learning disorders than children born at 39 weeks or later.
Babies born between 34 and 37 weeks are six times more likely to die during their first week or life and three times more likely to die during their first year than babies born at 39 or 40 weeks, Fleishman added.
"Everybody knows a baby who has been born a bit early who has done pretty well," Fleischman said. "But what we've learned is that, going backwards, there is increasing mortality and morbidity for every week prior to 39 weeks of gestation."
Many experts now refer to babies born between 34 and 36 weeks as "late preterm," while babies born at 37 and 38 weeks are "early term."
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the March of Dimes recommend against elective inductions or C-sections prior to 39 weeks.
In many situations, t
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