Babies born in the South are statistically less likely to survive their first year than children born in other regions of the country. Ten of the 11 states with the highest infant mortality rates are in the South, and in more than half these states the statistics have been getting worse. Southern governors want to do something about it and have established a task force under Gov. Richard Riley of South Carolina to look at the problem and suggest solutions.

In a recent interim report, the governors came up with some disturbing data. Almost 20 percent of all births in their states are to teen-age mothers; a shockingly high number of them are under 14. Two out of five pregnant women in the area receive inadequate prenatal care, and a high proportion of babies are born too soon or too small. The incidence of low- birth-weight babies is twice as high among black women in the South as it is among white women.

Money, as usual, would help. Adequate funding -- much of it from the federal government -- for prenatal and early childhood health care is essential. Such spending is more than compassionate: It's sensible, for the cost of caring for critically ill newborns and educating and institutionalizing those handicapped by prematurity far exceeds a proposed $700-per-child expenditure for preventive care during pregnancy and the first year of life. More important than money, however, is education. Pregnant women must be taught the dangers of cigarettes, alcohol and drugs; adolescents must learn the dangers of teen-age pregnancy, not only in terms of their own young lives but for their high- risk babies as well.

The Childrens' Defense Fund, a private organization, has just embarked on a five-year effort to prevent teen-age pregnancy and improve prenatal care. CDF's work is not limited to one region, but it is cooperating with the southern governors' project. The two organizations have undertaken formidable tasks in an area of importance to the nation. Their efforts can make a difference.