We estimate that around 53,000 babies are born prematurely (before 37 weeks) in the UK every year, equating to nearly 8% of all live births. This is 6 babies every hour, and is higher than the average across Europe.
Babies who are born prematurely are extremely vulnerable and parents often have to endure agonising months in hospital, unsure of their baby's future. While most premature babies survive, prematurity is the most significant cause of death in children under the age of 5. And for those that do survive, there is a significant risk of permanent disability and long-term health problems, creating lifelong challenges.
“Nobody tells you how defeated you’ll feel when you put your baby back in an incubator and walk down the corridor. I’m fearful and assume the worst when he’s ill.”
Sheyma, whose son was born at 25 weeks and spent 4 months in hospital.
Ethnicity has a significant impact on the likelihood of a baby being born too soon. Since data collection began in 2007, Black families in England and Wales have consistently had higher rates of premature births, compared to other ethnic groups. Between 2020 and 2021, there was also a notable increase in the rate of premature birth among Asian families. This is unacceptable and needs to change.
Critically, the UK is not on track to meet the government target of reducing premature birth from 8% to 6% by 2025.
Tommy’s premature birth research
Premature birth is a complex medical issue with many potential causes. Research is essential if we are to understand it better and improve the care that women and birthing people receive. Tommy’s has supported cutting-edge work into the causes and prevention of premature birth and our researchers have already made significant discoveries.
- Our researchers developed the QUiPP app, a clinical tool that uses test results and medical history to help doctors assess how likely it is that someone will give birth prematurely. The app is now used extensively throughout the UK, supporting doctors and midwives to decide which women and birthing people need further help, and which don’t.
- Our researchers led the UK-wide MAVRIC study, which showed that an abdominal stitch (inserted high in the cervix) can prevent more premature births and save more babies’ lives than a stitch inserted through the vagina, when used to treat women and birthing people who previously had a failed vaginal stitch.
But despite these amazing breakthroughs, a step-change is needed to reduce the number of babies born too soon in the UK and to give a new generation a better start in life.
Tommy's National Centre for Preterm Birth Research
That is why we're opening the Tommy’s National Centre for Preterm Birth Research – which will be dedicated to researching the causes of and treatments to prevent premature birth.
This new collaborative research centre will bring together leading experts in premature birth research to advance our understanding and deliver new innovations and treatments. Through the work of this centre, we want to:
- Reduce the rates of premature birth in the UK
- Reduce inequalities in outcomes and access to care
- Improve outcomes for mothers and babies
A core mission of this new centre must be to reduce inequity in premature birth. To do this, our centre needs to include preterm birth clinics at hospitals in areas with high levels of ethnic diversity. This means we would be able to provide additional care for those at risk, while also making sure that we recruit research study participants from a diverse range of backgrounds. This will help us to understand more about why some minoritised ethnic groups are more likely to experience premature birth and will help us develop strategies to tackle this problem.
“After a month on the NICU, we felt like we were at breaking point. Then we heard the consultant say the words we were dreading – a simple ‘I’m really worried about Isaac’.”
Katharine, whose son Isaac was born at 24 weeks and died when he was 1 month old.