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Premature births in Oklahoma at highest level since 2010

Oklahoma City β€” Oklahoma babies are being born too early at a rate not seen since 2010, strongly suggesting that last year's increase in premature births wasn't a statistical fluke.

About 11.1 percent of Oklahoma babies were born before 37 weeks in 2017, up from 10.6 percent the year before. A full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks.

An increase of 0.5 percent may seem slight, but it meant that roughly 250 additional babies got off to a more difficult start in life. Premature babies are at a higher risk of dying in infancy or having long-term disabilities.

Preterm births also increased nationwide, but not as sharply as they did in Oklahoma, which tied for eighth-highest rate of premature birth.

A host of factors could be driving the increase in preterm births, said Joyce Marshall, director of maternal and child services at the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

Oklahoma moms are having more twins and triplets, who are at a higher risk for early birth. The obesity rate keeps increasing, which packs a double punch: It increases the odds women will have chronic conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes before getting pregnant, and seems to be a risk factor on its own.

Oklahoma also still has a high rate of poverty and more uninsured adults than many states, both of which interfere with women's abilities to get healthy before pregnancy, when it's easier to address chronic conditions, Marshall said. Financial instability also leads to high levels of stress, which raise the risk of premature birth, she said.

Not all risk factors are increasing. Fewer women are smoking or drinking during pregnancy, both of which increase babies' risks of premature birth, Marshall said. The rate of unintended pregnancies also has gone down slightly, meaning more women have the opportunity to make healthy choices in advance, she said.

Still, many women aren't getting all the information and support they need to start their pregnancies right, said Jill Nobles-Botkin, administrative program manager for perinatal and reproductive health at the Health Department.

Her office is encouraging doctors to treat every visit with a woman of reproductive age as a potential preconception visit. Someone may come in for an ear infection, but the doctor can still take a few minutes to cover pregnancy risks after addressing the main complaint, she said.

β€œIn our ideal world, every interaction with a health care provider would be a time to talk about smoking and alcohol and folic acid,” she said.

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›