Extremely preterm babies — those born between the 22nd and 24th week of pregnancy — are surviving more than ever before, and escaping the long-term health defects that once plagued preemies.
Scientists analyzed records National Institutes of Health research network, spanning the years 2000 to 2011 and looking at data for more than 4,000 premature infants from 11 sites. The positive news? Researchers noted an increase in survival rates over that time period from 30 to 36 percent.
The findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, also demonstrated a positive increase in developmental outcomes. The number of premature babies who did not have a neurological or developmental impairment increased from 16 to 20 percent during the same 11-year time frame.
Researchers attribute the jump in survival and health to advances in care for expectant mothers and newborns, but cautioned that this care comes with its own set of challenges. Some life-support procedures are painful to babies, and this can be traumatic to parents and physicians.
"Our findings do provide important information that physicians and family members can consult to help determine treatment strategies," said study author Rosemary Higgins, M.D., a program scientist at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in a statement.
The findings are significant, Higgins added, because in the past, experts feared that saving extremely preterm infants also led to a higher percentage of infants with disabilities. However, a powerful combination of care and a wider use of antenatal steroids — used to help infant lungs mature — are saving a greater number of babies.