November is National Prematurity Awareness Month and we wanted to provide a little more information about premature birth, as well as offer support for women facing certain risk factors. A premature birth refers to a baby that is born at least three weeks before their due date. Important growth and development milestones occur throughout pregnancy, but even more so in the final months and weeks. Our hope is that through proper care and education, our patients can see their due dates and go home with healthy, full-term babies.
Although babies born very preterm are a small percentage of all births, these very preterm infants account for a large proportion of infant mortality rates. More infants die from preterm-related problems than from any other cause. Some premature babies require special care and spend weeks or months hospitalized in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Those who survive are at risk of facing lifelong problems such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, breathing and respiratory problems, visual problems including retinopathy of prematurity, hearing loss, feeding and digestive problems.
Even if a woman does everything "right" during pregnancy, she still at risk of having a premature baby. There are some known risk factors for premature birth. For example, one risk factor is having a previous preterm birth. Additionally, race can be a risk factor. Although most African American women give birth at term, on average, they are about 50% more likely to have a premature baby compared to Caucasian women. The reasons behind racial differences remain unknown and are an area of intense research at this time. Other known risk factors for premature birth include carrying more than one baby (twins, triplets, or more), problems with the uterus or cervix, chronic health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and clotting disorders, certain infections during pregnancy, cigarette smoking, alcohol use, or illicit drug use during pregnancy.
On the other hand, sometimes doctors need to deliver a baby early because of concerns for the health of the mother or the baby. An early delivery should only be considered when there is a medical reason to do so. If a pregnant woman is healthy and the pregnancy is progressing well, it is best to let the baby come on his or her own time. Although most babies born just a few weeks early do well and have no health issues, some may have more health problems than full-term babies. For example, a baby born at 35 weeks is more likely to have jaundice, breathing problems and a longer hospital stay than a baby born at 37 weeks and beyond.
It’s important, early on in your pregnancy to talk to us about ways to best control diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes, how to pursue a healthy diet and which prenatal vitamins to include in your daily supplementation. It is also crucial to take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily before and during early pregnancy. Any concerns about pregnancy and any warning signs or symptoms of preterm labor will need medical attention and the care of a doctor or midwife.
In most cases, preterm labor begins unexpectedly and with no known cause. It’s important to seek care if you think you might be having preterm labor, because we may be able to help you and your baby delay the onset of preterm labor.
Warning signs include contractions every 10 minutes or more frequently, change in vaginal discharge (leaking fluid or bleeding from the vagina), pelvic pressure (the feeling that the baby is pushing down), dull backache, cramps that feel like a menstrual period or abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea.
Birth is a complex and wonderful process. Fortunately, the outcome for most women is a full-term, healthy baby. More research still is needed to understand the risk factors for premature birth, such as how family history, genetics, infections, race and ethnicity, nutrition, and environment may work together to put some women at greater risk for a premature delivery.
If you have any specific questions about the occurrence of premature birth, feel free to give us a call.
Promotes optimal reproductive, maternal, and infant health. CDC scientists and their partners are collaborating with states, university researchers, and partners in health care to understand why preterm births occur, and what can done to prevent prematurity.
More information from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
The National Library of Medicine provides links to the latest news and research on preterm birth.
Learn more information about the care of premature babies from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Learn how to be healthy (before, during, and after pregnancy) and give your baby a healthy start to life.
Promotes the health of babies, children, and adults, and enhances the potential for full, productive living.