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An early premature baby sleeps in an incubator.

About eight per cent of babies born in Canada each year arrive too soon, and many of them need extra support that isn't available, a group says.

Premature infants face increased risks of illness and death. Every year, a million premature babies around the world don't survive, according to the March of Dimes. Those who do face higher rates of learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, respiratory illness and are more likely to have developmental and behavioural problems.

The increasing incidence of pre-term births results in more low birth weight babies with their attendant health risks, says the Ottawa-based Community Foundation of Canada, which will release report cards on the topic in 16 communities across the country on Tuesday.

"How do we prepare for a future where we might see an increase in learning needs, and increase in public health issues?" said the group's president and CEO, Monica Patten. "How do we get ready for that?"

In Canada, many babies arrive early when doctors induce deliveries or do caesarian sections in late-term pregnancies in which the mom or baby appears to be at risk, said Dr. Michael Kramer, a professor at McGill University in Montreal who is an internationally known expert on pre-term birth.

The rate of premature births in Canada has gone up more than 25 per cent since the mid-1980s, Kramer said. He attributed the trend to more older mothers and the increasing use of fertility treatments that often result in twins or multiple births who are more likely to be delivered preterm.

Babies born even a few weeks early have a small increased risk of respiratory illness, infection, developmental problems and death, he said.

"We need to keep the adverse [or the] disadvantages of early delivery in mind when we're making those decisions about when to induce and when to have caesarian section," said Kramer.