It’s not National Baby Day (in case you missed it on May 2), but infants are in the news all the same.

Some of the news is good. Researchers say it may be possible to screen for genetic problems only five weeks into a pregnancy.

Other news, not so much. Officials report the rate of premature births in the United States increased for the first time in eight years.

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Fetal DNA

In the first research project, 20 healthy pregnant women were included in an early test of fetal DNA.

Women normally have a Pap test early in pregnancy. From this exam, researchers were able to capture enough fetal DNA to spot abnormalities much earlier than had previously been possible. The cells that were collected, called trophoblasts, stimulate a placenta’s growth.

This potential screening tool could lead to earlier diagnosis as well as treatment for babies with a genetic disease, including metabolic disorders where therapy can begin in utero.

Even if there’s nothing to be done during the pregnancy, doctors would be forewarned so they’re ready with appropriate personnel and equipment after the birth.

Single-gene mutations cause more than 6,000 diseases. In turn, these diseases are linked to 10 percent of all pediatric hospitalizations and 20 percent of infant deaths.

Right now, prenatal screening for genetic disorders involves collecting a sample of the placenta or amniotic fluid. These are invasive approaches that carry a small risk of miscarriage and cannot be performed earlier than nine to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

Prenatal testing of fetal DNA fragments found in a mother’s blood currently offers a noninvasive method, but the results must often be verified by intrusive tests and are unavailable until the end of the first trimester.

“The sample is small,” acknowledged Sascha Drewlo, Ph.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Michigan, and a member of the research team. “But this is proof of a predictive concept.”

More studies need to be done, but, “I think this could be a game-changer,” Drewlo told Healthline.

If further tests validate the results, it could become a routine part of prenatal care.

“We hope to reduce birth defects, so all babies can be born healthy,” he said.

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Premature births

While we’re making strides toward eliminating some birth defects, we’re falling behind in preventing premature births.

A premature birth is considered to occur before 37 weeks of pregnancy and is the leading cause of infant death in the United States.

The overall rate rose from 9.57 percent to 9.63 percent, according to data from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics.

Children who survive preterm birth may have serious and lifelong health conditions such as breathing problems, jaundice, vision loss, cerebral palsy, and intellectual delays, according to the March of Dimes.

According to a report from a research organization, rates are especially high among certain racial and ethnic groups.

Rates in 2015 were nearly 48 percent higher for African-American women and more than 15 percent higher for Native American women compared with Caucasian women, according to the report.

Just what do the statistics mean?

A jump from 9.57 percent to 9.63 percent doesn’t sound like much. However, according to Dr. Edward McCabe, chief medical officer for the March of Dimes, it translates into 2,000 babies.

“That’s the number of babies born in Pasadena,” he said.

The findings led the March of Dimes to give the United States a “C” on its latest Premature Birth Report Card.

Four states earned an “A” ranking: New Hampshire, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Sixteen states got “B's,” while 21 states and the District of Columbia got “C's.”

At the bottom of the list were six states and Puerto Rico, which all got “D's.” And three states — Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi — got “F's.”

Seven states — Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah, and Wisconsin — got lower grades than last year.

Maine was noted as having made the biggest efforts and progress toward eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in preterm birth, while Hawaii ranked 50th, the report said.

Read more: Premature babies may be more likely to develop ADHD, autism »

What some areas are doing

One of the things the report card showed was considerable differences between counties in some states.

“There are some amazing counties,” McCabe told Healthline. “What are those good areas doing? What can we do to help?”

Some counties have pre-pregnancy programs that translate into better outcomes. For example, educating women about birth spacing has good results.

“Less than 18 months from a birth to a new conception is too short,” McCabe said.

Prematurity is more likely if the interval between births is not long enough. That’s because the level of micronutrients in a woman’s body has not been restored to previous levels.

“Reducing tobacco use also has remarkable results,” he added.

“The March of Dimes strives for a world where every baby has a fair chance, yet we see this is not the reality for many mothers and babies,” said Jennifer Howse, Ph.D., president of the March of Dimes, in a press release. “Babies in this country have different chances of surviving and thriving simply based on the circumstances of their birth.”