World Prematurity Day: A Time to Reflect on the Importance of Prenatal Care

The following guest post comes to us via Edna Meza Aguirre, regional associate development director for Planned Parenthood Arizona. Edna is a native Tucsonan, bilingual and bicultural. She received her JD from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and worked in the area of criminal defense for 12 years before changing careers. Edna is in her 16th year of volunteering at the University of Arizona Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit helping comfort newborn babies.

baby_feetThe neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) I volunteer in is among the best in the country. It is known nationwide for the cutting-edge research and techniques that not only save the life of a premature baby, but encourage that same infant to thrive.

The moment the delivery health care staff senses the as-yet unborn child is in stress, the amazing doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists are on the scene in the delivery room. As in a well-coordinated symphony, the lifesaving process begins. Through the priceless intervention of these medical professionals, I have seen babies born blue return to a normal color. I have seen listless children born with no sign of life emerge back into this world through the medicine and touch of these professionals. I’ve seen sobbing parents struggling with this difficult reality as hospital staff explain the problem at hand with caring words and a gentle tone.

There isn’t a single parent who isn’t deeply emotionally affected by watching their vulnerable baby receive treatment.

Premature birth, also called preterm birth, occurs when a baby is born before the pregnancy has reached 37 weeks, and affects 1 out of every 10 babies born in the United States. Because the last few weeks of pregnancy are so crucial to a baby’s development, being born too early can lead to death or disabilities, such as breathing, vision, or hearing problems, as well as cerebral palsy and developmental delays. Treatment can sometimes depend on how premature the baby is. With a normal gestation period of 40 weeks, a premature baby might be born at 25 weeks, 30 weeks, etc. This time frame can be calculated easily enough with mothers who are receiving prenatal care.

There are, however, cases where the mother has received no prenatal care and doesn’t know how many weeks pregnant she is.

Once stabilized in the delivery room, the baby is quickly brought into the NICU unit. Leads that gauge heart and breathing rate, along with leads for pulse and temperature, are attached to the infant with painless stickers. If necessary, intravenous catheters for fluids and medicines are placed along with a feeding tube. To help families cope, there are chaplains and social workers.

The daily financial cost of a NICU stay is well above $4,000. Per day. While there is a guarantee that hospital costs continue to increase, there isn’t a similar guarantee that insurance will cover all NICU costs. Some parents have no insurance coverage at all when their premature child is born.

November is Prematurity Awareness Month, and tomorrow, November 17, is World Prematurity Day. As we approach November 17, it is incumbent upon us as a society to examine how we prioritize health care in our country. While some premature births can’t be prevented, some can.

In the United States, we are very fortunate that circumstances once determining the death of a newborn are now the very circumstances that modern medical science can counter. But this circumstance raises the question: What do we focus on as the public health issue? To continue NICU research and move the needle on once fatal circumstances? Or do we look at how to properly fund prenatal care and education?

I say the answer lies in both.

We cannot ignore the fact that innovative and successful NICU research has saved lives and allowed parents to take their baby home instead of planning a funeral. And let us look at the costs of NICU care and contrast it with preventive health care costs. Not only is preventive care less expensive, it is nowhere near as emotionally draining for parents. The art of becoming a parent is something every new parent is faced with, especially with a sick or fragile baby.

This new 24/7 job for parents can only be made easier with education before birth. Crucial information regarding diet, lifestyle, health care, insurance, and other prenatal issues can only serve to help individuals in their new capacity as parents.

What can we as a society do to promote prenatal care? Contact your lawmaker regarding state and federal funding. If you know someone without health care, advise them about ACA enrollment periods and offer to take them to an enrollment session. If you know a pregnant woman who is using drugs or is drinking alcohol, gently speak with her about how she can seek treatment.

I’m not pretending the solution is easy or that it will be implemented overnight. However, the fact remains that some premature births are indeed preventable. There isn’t a single parent who isn’t deeply emotionally affected by watching their vulnerable baby receive treatment.

Let us stand side by side with those parents before their child is born.

Planned Parenthood health centers across the country can help educate you about prenatal health and refer you to additional resources if necessary. To help you have a healthy pregnancy, Planned Parenthood Arizona also offers smoking cessation, and our Title X centers can provide you with prenatal vitamins if you qualify.