Premature babies are prevalent in the United States, with one in every 10 children born before 37 weeks. For African-American pregnant women, the chance of having a preterm birth is much higher. African-American women have a 48 percent higher chance of having a preemie than any other race in our country.

While some research points to socio-economic factors, researchers often stress it only plays a part in a fraction of African American births. Some pregnant African American women deliver earlier than 37 weeks with no definite explanation.

“Seeing him like that for the first time was scary. He was definitely the tiniest baby I had ever seen,” said April Jolly, a Central West End resident. Her son Preston was born at 29 weeks weighing only 2-pounds and 12-ounces.

“There are families that look like me and I think sometimes people think, it’s because the mother didn’t do something and that’s why she had a preemie. She was drinking or smoking and I mean no,” Jolly said.

Jolly, who works in the healthcare industry, did everything right. She ate well, exercised and made every doctor’s appointment. Doctors could never give April and her husband Andwele a reason why Preston was born so early.

Now, the nonprofit March of Dimes is funding the search for an answer.

There is now a lab at Washington University dedicated to finding out why babies are born too soon. Inside that lab, the March of Dimes is funding a five-year study looking into the issue.

Dr. Sarah England, professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University, is one of the main researchers.

“It’s very important that we capture the African American population because they carry the burden of this disease,” Dr. England said.

The study being conducted at the Washington University March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center will look at everything from the way pregnant women sleep, to their bacteria, genetics, diet, uterus, cervix and many other factors.

But the cornerstone of the study will be the women of St. Louis.

Washington University needs 1,000 women to volunteer for the study and Dr. England said Barnes-Jewish Hospital is the perfect place to find them.

“We do tend to capture a larger African American population and it’s just the city hospital so we are very fortunate that this is our patient population,” she said.

Dr. England estimated by sheer patient population, roughly 650 of the 1,000 pregnant women that volunteer will be African American giving researchers a clearer picture of why they are more susceptible to preterm birth.

The hope is to keep others from the terrifying experience April Jolly faced not once but twice.

Three years after the birth of Preston, she found herself in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St. Louis Children’s Hospital again. Her daughter, Sheridan was born at 33 weeks gestation weighing 3-pounds 12-ounces.

Both children are doing well, but doctors still could never give the Jolly family a reason why their babies spent their first several months in the hospital due to preterm birth.

“It’s not always a happy ending and I recognize that we are very lucky that our little people are here and home with us,” said Jolly.

If you would like to participate in the study, you must be less than 5 months pregnant with one child. You must plan to deliver at Barnes Jewish Hospital and be willing to come in for three study visits. Volunteers will be compensated.

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