By Elise Viebeck - 02/15/13 06:17 PM EST
"The Strong Start initiative will help find ways to reduce the rate of preterm births, which is a public health problem with significant long-term consequences for families and children."
The awards were made possible by President Obama's healthcare law, she added.
Premature births are those that take place before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy, when infants' brains and lungs are at a critical stage of development.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists serious health problems among the possible side effects, and studies have shown that preterm births weigh more heavily than normal births on the federal Medicaid budget, which covers about 40 percent of all deliveries in the United States. Babies born too early also risk costly health problems as adults.
The March of Dimes reported recently that 11.7 percent of U.S. infants were born prematurely in 2011, the lowest rate in a decade. The figure still earned the United States a "C" grade compared with its international peers.