updated 11/17/2010 5:18:09 PM ET 2010-11-17T22:18:09

Premature births may finally be starting to inch down, says a new report from the March of Dimes.

The change is small: In 2006, 12.8 percent of U.S. babies were born premature, compared with 12.3 percent in 2008.

Still, that translates into 21,000 fewer preterm births, said March of Dimes president Dr. Jennifer Howse — what she called the first real sign of progress after three decades of rising prematurity.

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"That was very welcome news," Howse said. "What we think is happening is that the message is really getting across that every week of pregnancy counts."

That's because most of the improvement came among babies born just a few weeks early. Howse credited efforts to clamp down on doctors and hospitals that were scheduling elective deliveries — inductions or first-time C-sections — too soon, despite guidelines discouraging such deliveries until completion of 39 weeks of pregnancy.

More than half a million U.S. babies are born premature each year, and 13 million worldwide. A baby born before completion of 37 weeks is termed premature. Those born very early face the greatest risk of death and lifelong health problems. But being born even a few weeks early can lead to breathing problems, jaundice and learning or behavioral delays.

The nation is nowhere near meeting the government's goal: That no more than 7.6 percent of babies be born preterm.

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"Our country has one of the highest rates of preterm birth in the world," U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin said in a statement. "We have to do better."

Wednesday's March of Dimes report maps state-by-state disparities in prematurity. The odds of having a premature baby were lowest in Vermont — where 9.5 percent of births were preterm in 2008 — and highest in Mississippi, with a rate of 18 percent, the report found.

Doctors don't know all the causes of preterm birth. But stopping smoking and getting early prenatal care can lower a woman's risk. The new report found that while smoking by pregnant women is declining slightly, the poor economy left more women without insurance in 2008.

Howse said the new health care law should help improve women's access to early prenatal care in coming years, including by eliminating pregnancy as a preexisting condition starting in 2014, but called for additional efforts to battle the problem.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: U.S. gets low marks for preemie birth rates


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