World Prematurity Day must be a springboard for more research to save and improve lives

This year at Tommy’s, we’re marking World Prematurity Day with a pledge.

We know that tens of thousands of families are devastated every year when much-loved babies are born too soon. Too many lives are lost, and too many are changed forever.

That’s why we’re committed to tackling premature birth and ending the trauma it brings.

The only way to do that is through more research. We need to understand why babies are born prematurely, who is at risk of giving birth too early and what we can do to prevent it.

The scale and the impact of the problem demand urgent action.

In the UK, around 53,000 babies are born before 37 weeks every year.

  • The UK premature birth rate has remained between 7% and 8% since 2010, compared with an average of 6.9% across Europe
  • Progress has stalled, with the Government currently not on track to meet its target of a reduction to 6% by 2025
  • Premature birth leaves babies more vulnerable to life-long health complications, with the risks largely linked to how premature they are.

Thanks to research, we can do a lot to help premature babies grow and develop outside the womb, but their survival still often depends on how early they’re born.

At 24 weeks, babies have a 60% chance of survival. At 22 weeks, it’s just 10%.

And premature birth is more likely to affect some ethnic groups than others, reflecting inequities which no-one can ignore.

In 2021, 8.7% of babies born to Black women and birthing people in the UK were premature.

For women and birthing people of Asian origin, the figure was 8.1% - up from 7.5% in 2020.

Since 2021, Black women and birthing people have had the highest proportion of premature births since numbers were first recorded in 2007.

We need to investigate and address these differences, and make sure that our healthcare system meets the needs of all women and birthing people and their babies.

We are already the largest UK charity funding medical research into premature birth, with projects led by experts around the UK.

We believe that parents need to know whether they’re at risk of premature birth before it happens, so that they can get the help they need as soon as possible.

By identifying who’s at risk, we can sometimes take action to keep the baby in the womb for longer so they can grow bigger and stronger, or give them medical treatments to help them develop and improve their chance of survival after they are born.

Our researchers’ breakthroughs include the development of a lifesaving abdominal stitch which is placed high up in the cervix (transabdominal cerclage or TAC) to help prevent premature birth in women who are known to be at risk.

Now we want to go further.

We will set up the UK’s first National Centre for Preterm Birth Research, bringing together researchers dedicated to finding the causes and treatments that will save babies’ lives.

We will share more in the coming months, as we work towards the launch of this ground-breaking project.

Kath Abrahams, Chief Executive of Tommy’s, says:

“Our aim is to create a world-class, collaborative research centre which can deliver the step-change we need to reduce the number of babies being born too early in the UK.

“Thanks to the support of our incredible community, Tommy’s researchers have made real progress in working out who is most at risk of premature birth and how to protect against it.

“By setting up our National Centre for Preterm Birth Research, we're determined to go further and faster, so that we can end the trauma of premature birth for every parent, every family and every baby.”