Nearly 10 percent of births in New Jersey occur preterm — before 37 weeks — and that rate deserves a 'C' grade, according to the March of Dimes.

Using data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the nonprofit's Premature Birth Report Card finds 16 states earned a better grade than New Jersey.

Premature birth and its complications, the report card states, are the largest contributors to infant death in America, as well as a major cause of long-term health problems in children who survive.

The report card records New Jersey's preterm birth rate at 9.5 percent in 2017. The rate has dropped steadily from 10.6 in 2007, the report shows, but it's a far cry from March of Dimes' goal of 8.1 percent by 2020.

"This number is improving in New Jersey, but we need to do more," said Kerry McKean-Kelly, vice president of communications for the New Jersey Hospital Association. "We need to look broadly at all the social determinants of health to prevent preterm births."

The best shot at an outcome of "healthy mom and healthy baby," McKean-Kelly said, is a birth that occurs full term. Birthing hospitals in the state have adopted policies that avoid inducing birth prior to 39 weeks unless there's a medical need.

The last couple weeks in the womb are crucial for a baby's development, she said.

As part of the New Jersey Department of Health's "Healthy Women, Healthy Families" initiative, six maternal and child health agencies have been awarded a total of $4.7 million to improve the chances of healthier pregnancies and fewer preterm births, a DOH spokesperson said.

Among the six New Jersey counties with the greatest number of births in 2016, the March of Dimes report finds, only Ocean (A) and Middlesex (B) received grades better than the state's average. Bergen, Essex and Hudson earned a 'D,' and Passaic earned an 'F' with a preterm birth rate of 11.9 percent.

While premature births plague all races, the statistics show the problem is slightly to much worse among the non-White population. In the Garden State, the preterm birth rate among black women is 47 percent higher than the rate among all other women.

Just one state — Vermont — earned an 'A' grade. Its preterm birth rate was recorded at 7.5 percent.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.