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Sarah DiGregorio’s history of premature birth shows promising developments

David Wilson for the Boston Globe

When Sarah DiGregorio gave birth to her daughter, Mira, at 28 weeks’ gestation, the baby weighed just one pound, thirteen ounces. She spent nearly two months in the NICU, but she survived — today, Mira’s a happy, healthy kindergartener, “funny and sharp and inquisitive,” DiGregorio said.

It wasn’t until a year after her daughter’s birth that DiGregorio, a journalist whose previous work mostly revolved around food writing, sat down to write about it. “I felt that I needed to write about her birth, and I wrote what is essentially the prologue of the book in one day,” DiGregorio said. “It just came out of me.”


From that start grew “Early: An Intimate History of Premature Birth and What It Teaches Us About Being Human,” in which DiGregorio chronicles the medical innovation that has led us to this moment, when a child as tiny as Mira is likely to survive and do well, while only a few decades ago the outcome would not have been so happy.

In researching the science behind treating premature babies, DiGregorio said, she began by calling up neonatologists and asking every question she could think of. “I built my understanding from the ground up,” she said. “I’m not afraid to ask dumb questions.” Along the way, she profiles some of the field’s pioneers, now in their eighties and nineties, clinicians and researchers who bucked traditional wisdom and fought for the lives of the very prematurely born.

What she found is mostly heartening, especially the “focus on the baby and the family as much as the technology and the medications.” Still, DiGregorio added, “I think it’s an ongoing process. I hope that on the prevention side we can start looking further upstream, and start thinking about how we care for each other in this country, because that will result in healthier children.”


Sarah DiGregorio will read at Brookline Booksmith on Friday, February 21, at 7 p.m.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at