The typical pregnancy measures roughly 37 weeks from beginning to end. Any births that occur after week 20 but before week 37 are classified as “preterm births.” Premature labor can be a frightening prospect for a parent. An infant born prematurely can miss out on significant and necessary fetal development, which means that preterm births can often present major health complications.
That said, preterm births occur with surprising frequency. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 10 births during the year of 2018 were preterm births. Preterm infants are less common than they used to be, but they still represent a statistically significant percentage of births.
The more you know about preterm births, the better you’ll be able to assess risk and make informed decisions along the way. If you have any questions about your risk for preterm labor, talking to your OBGYN or midwife can help deliver clarity and reassurance.
What is Premature Birth?
Babies born between weeks 20 and 36 of pregnancy are considered to be premature or preterm. Such babies usually have unique challenges and complications, including low body weight. However, it is possible for a baby to be born underweight without necessarily being short of full term. Underweight births can present their own unique health challenges.
If you think you are experiencing premature labor, it’s important that you contact a medical professional immediately. Prompt medical intervention is important for two critical reasons:
- Arresting labor: In some cases, labor can be stopped or delayed. This ensures that your baby will have more time to develop before birth. The closer to full term your baby can get, the fewer health complications are usually present. Premature labor will not always lead to premature delivery.
- Immediate treatment: In cases where premature delivery cannot be delayed, it’s likely that your preemie will require significant medical intervention in a neonatal setting. The sooner your infant receives this attention, the better health outcomes tend to be.
Preterm births are usually broken down into four different categories:
- Extreme preterm birth: This is any child born before 28 weeks of pregnancy. These typically account for 5% of all preterm births.
- Very early preterm birth: These are children born between 28-30 weeks of pregnancy. Fifteen percent of preterm births fall into this category.
- Early preterm births: This category includes children born between 31-33 weeks of gestation, and accounts for roughly 20% of all preterm births.
- Late preterm birth: Children born between 34-36 weeks of pregnancy are classified as “late preterm.” This category accounts for somewhere between 60-70% of preterm births.
The preterm classification of a baby will help determine some of the immediate needs they may have. Of course, every baby will also be evaluated as an individual to see what unique medical requirements may be present.
What Causes Preterm Birth?
Scientists, researchers, and doctors have not been able to identify a single cause of preterm birth. Instead, most data can only illustrate specific risk factors. Some of those risk factors may include:
- Genetics: Some causes of preterm birth are hereditary in nature, though they are often difficult to detect.
- History: If you have a personal history of preterm labor, that’s usually a significant risk factor for future preterm birth as well.
- Smoking, tobacco use, or illicit drug use. Any illicit substance could potentially increase your risk of preterm birth. Even prescription medications should be discussed with your doctor.
- Age of the mother: In some cases, very young mothers are more likely to give birth short of a full term.
- A shortened cervix.
- Some infections or medical conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
- Preterm birth is more likely in pregnancies with twins, triplets, or multiple babies.
This list is by no means exhaustive. You can talk to your midwife or OBGYN if you have questions about your preterm labor risk factors.
It should also be noted that risk factors are statistical tools and not necessarily predictive. It’s entirely possible for a new mother to present several risk factors and enjoy an entirely healthy and normal labor. However, lowering the prevalence of risk factors can minimize the probabilities of a preterm birth..
What Are the Dangers of Preterm Births?
The dangers associated with preterm birth will vary considerably depending on the preterm classification. The earlier the baby is born, the more complications may arise. Positive outcomes increase substantially if the baby’s lungs have had a chance to develop fully. Generally, the most concerning complications include the following:
- Vision problems
- Hearing impairments
- Trouble breathing
- Difficulties with feeding
- Cerebral palsy
- Developmental delay and cognitive difficulties
Babies born before 32 weeks tend to have the highest rates of death and disability. Some of these dangers are acute and will need to be treated immediately. Other conditions could be chronic and need to be addressed over a longer period of time. Every birth is different, so if you have questions about the dangers of preterm birth, be sure to talk to your midwife or OBGYN.
Can You Prevent Preterm Births?
Because no one is sure entirely why they happen, no one can guarantee the prevention of any given preterm birth. However, there are some steps you can take to lower your overall risk profile.
- Maintain a healthy diet: Making good dietary choices can have significant benefits both for you and for your child. For example, eating healthy foods can keep your blood pressure down and prevent diabetes. There’s also some research to suggest that a diet rich in polyunsaturated fats (or PUFAs) may be beneficial.
- Have regular checkups or check-ins: As you go through the pregnancy process, it’s important to schedule regular checkups with your OBGYN and midwife. This will give medical professionals a chance to check in on the health of your baby and give you a chance to ask about any conditions or symptoms that might concern you.
- Consider spacing out your pregnancies: Becoming pregnant shortly after you’ve given birth can sometimes lead to an increase in the risk for preterm labor. Consider giving yourself at least six months after birth before becoming pregnant again. And when in doubt, ask your OBGYN about the timing.
- Avoid risky substances: There are many foods, drinks, and medications you’ll be required to avoid when you’re pregnant. Successfully avoiding these substances–including tobacco or illicit drugs–can increase your chances of a healthy, full-term pregnancy.
- Talk to your doctor or midwife about chronic conditions: If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, or other chronic conditions, you might be tempted to stop treating yourself when you become pregnant. But this can increase your preterm risks. Instead, talk to your doctor about your care options and the best way to manage any conditions you may have.
Your OBGYN or midwife will be able to provide personalized care instructions that will maximize your potential for a healthy, full term pregnancy.
The prospect of a preterm birth or a preterm baby can be understandably frightening for parents. So it’s important to keep in mind that, as is the case with all pregnancies, the best approach is to adequately understand and appreciate the risks involved. That way, you can take measured action to minimize your risks where appropriate.