Every expectant mother has an ideal vision of the birthing process, one that results in her holding her newborn in her hospital room with family gathered around.

But the reality is that premature births happen — and in Kentucky they happen at a rate 2 percent higher than the national average. When a baby is born prior to the 37th week of pregnancy, it is considered premature. There’s no official cause of premature birth, and the March of Dimes spends millions of dollars on research to determine ways to help mothers carry babies to full term births.

“The cause of premature birth is unknown,” said Ryan Burt, Wellness Manager at Passport Health Plan. “There are certain risk factors that can lead to premature birth and we can tell women to be sure to lower their risk, but the actual reason is still unknown.”

Burt said that premature birth can affect babies well into adulthood, with many suffering from respiratory issues, asthma, developmental delays, behavioral problems, and even oral health issues.

And even for mothers who eat right, exercise, don’t smoke, and see their doctor regularly, there’s a risk of premature birth. Burt herself had a baby one month earlier than expected.

“When you’re having a baby, you have this idea of when a child is going to come,” she said. “You have your hospital plan ready. Then all of a sudden you have back pain, bleeding, signs that make you uncomfortable and you go and get checked out. You go to the hospital and they tell you the baby is coming. You may not even have your crib put together yet.

“I was going on maternity leave and had done little to nothing to get ready because I thought I still had a month left to prepare,” she added. “It really rocks your world as far as feeling prepared. And it’s a scary experience anyway because there’s a lot to prepare for and you don’t feel like you’re armed and ready to take on the task.”

Happily, Burt gave birth to a son and is preparing for Oliver’s first birthday. She’s also thrilled to be participating in the March of Dimes’ biggest annual fund-raiser, the Greater Louisville March for Babies, on Saturday, May 13 on the Big Four Lawn at Waterfront Park.

This year, the organization has set a goal to raise $565,000 and is already halfway there, thanks to the generosity of local corporations and individuals who put together teams to raise money and walk.

This year’s March of Dimes Ambassador family is the Hubbuchs, whose baby, Reese, was born at 31 weeks, weighing just 2 pounds. After 75 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), the Hubbuchs took their daughter home, and Reese is now a healthy 16-month-old.

Of course, not all premature births have happy endings. But there is some good news — the research is paying off.

“The survival rate for premature births is increasing,” said Burt. “It’s because of the research and work done by the March of Dimes. They look at the issue from different angles. The research found that it’s not just one thing, but how things work together.”

Burt added that the emotional toll taken on the families who experience a premature birth is difficult, especially when the baby seems so fragile.

“I remember visiting my son in the NICU with all the wires attached,” she said. “He wasn’t as severe as many of the others. I was scared to even hold him. It’s a whole different experience than a Mom that has the baby and is able to have them in the room right away.”