"I call them semi-electives," Goldenberg said. "I believe over the last 15 or 20 years, the practice is evolving to deliver those babies earlier and earlier when there is no evidence of benefits."
TV shows and news reports about very premature babies that survive may also be fueling misconceptions, Goldenberg said. Some women are left with the impression that if babies born before 30 weeks can survive, infants that are just a little bit premature should have no problems.
"Because the shows don't emphasize the bad outcomes at those ages, it's led not only women but doctors to conclude that by the time you get up to 34, 35 or 36 weeks, everything is fine," Goldenberg said. "But the recent research is showing it's not fine."
The last few weeks of gestation are critical to fetal development. All of the organs continue to mature in preparation for moving from the womb to the outside world, Fleischman explained. Between 35 and 40 weeks, the fetal brain grows by about 50 percent.
Educating expectant mothers and their physicians about the risk of preterm births may help women to make more informed decisions about when to schedule elective inductions and C-sections, Goldenberg said. That includes setting up hospital policies that discourage elective deliveries prior to 39 weeks and enforcing it through peer review to help curb the practice.
There's more on preventing premature births at the March of Dimes.
SOURCES: Robert L. Goldenberg, M.D., professor of obstetrics and director of research, Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, Pa.; Alan Fleischman, M.D., medical director, March of D
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