MONDAY, Oct. 10, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Even partial steroid treatment before birth can improve survival odds for extremely premature infants and reduce their risk of certain birth defects, a new study suggests.

Steroids are standard therapy for pregnant women likely to give birth before 34 weeks of gestation. But the complete course of treatment takes at least 48 hours and doctors may decide not to begin treatment if premature delivery is imminent, explained researchers funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

But these new findings "suggest that starting steroid treatment promptly -- even if the likelihood of completion is low -- is beneficial when extremely premature birth is imminent," the researchers said.

The investigators analyzed data from more than 6,100 extremely premature infants who were born between 22 and 27 weeks of pregnancy. They were followed for 18 to 22 months after birth. Their mothers received either complete, partial or no steroid treatment.

Significant differences were seen among the three groups of infants in rates of death and complications such as bleeding in the brain, intestinal problems, lung disease and brain and nervous system impairment, according to an NIH news release.

These rates were lowest among infants in the complete steroid treatment group, but those in the partial treatment group had better outcomes than those in the untreated group, the study found.

The findings provide strong evidence that even a partial course of steroid treatment before birth can have some benefit for extremely premature infants, the researchers concluded.

The findings were published Oct. 10 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

More information

The March of Dimes has more on premature babies.