'Kangaroo care' key for premature babies
Mothers carrying babies skin-to-skin could significantly cut global death and disability rates from premature birth, a leading expert has said.
Prof Joy Lawn says "kangaroo care", not expensive intensive care, is the key.
The 15 million babies every year born at or before 37 weeks gestation account for about 10% of the global burden of disease, and one million of them die.
Of those who survive, just under 3% have moderate or severe impairments and 4.4% have mild impairments.
Prof Lawn, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), said: "The perception is you need intensive care for pre-term babies,
"But 85% of babies born premature are six weeks early or less. They need help feeding, with temperature control and they are more prone to infection.
"It's really only before 32 weeks that their lungs are immature and they need help breathing,
She added: "Unless there are those breathing problems, kangaroo care is actually better because it promotes breastfeeding and reduces infection."
Speaking ahead of World Prematurity Day on Friday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who leads the Every Woman Every Child movement, which promotes improvements to healthcare for women and children, said: "Three-quarters of the one million babies who die each year from complications associated with prematurity could have been saved with cost-effective interventions, even without intensive care facilities."
Duncan Wilbur, from the UK charity Bliss, said, "While kangaroo care saves lives in Africa, it is also incredibly important for babies born too soon all over the world.
"Here in the UK our medical technology is extremely advanced but simply giving a baby kangaroo care or skin-to-skin can help make a baby's breathing and heart rate more regular, it can help a baby's discomfort during certain medical procedures and importantly can benefit breastfeeding and bonding between the baby and parents."
Studies to be published this weekend in the Pediatric Research journal show boys are 14% more likely to be born prematurely - and boys who are premature are more likely to die or experience disability than girls.
Common disabilities include learning disorders and cerebral palsy.
Prof Lawn said: "One partial explanation for more preterm births among boys is that women pregnant with a boy are more likely to have placental problems, pre-eclampsia, and high blood pressure, all associated with preterm births."
She added: "Baby boys have a higher likelihood of infections, jaundice, birth complications, and congenital conditions, but the biggest risk for baby boys is due to preterm birth.
"For two babies born at the same degree of prematurity, a boy will have a higher risk of death and disability compared to a girl.
"Even in the womb, girls mature more rapidly than boys, which provides an advantage, because the lungs and other organs are more developed."