Premature birth can cause serious problems for a baby. It can even lead to death. But if you are pregnant, you can take steps to lower your risk. By reducing your chances of premature birth, you increase the chances for a healthy baby.
What is premature birth?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, cdc.com, offers tips to reduce premature birth. A birth is considered premature, or preterm, if it occurs at least three weeks before a baby's due date. Usually, a full-term pregnancy lasts 40 weeks.
Important growth and development occur throughout pregnancy. This growth happens through the final months and weeks. Most babies born a few weeks early do well and have no health problems. However, some premature babies do have more health problems than full-term babies.
For example, a baby born at 35 weeks is more likely to have:
- Breathing problems
- Longer hospital stays
Most preterm deliveries happen without a known cause. Doctors can decide to deliver a baby early. Sometimes it is because of concerns for the health of the mother. Sometimes there are health concerns for the baby.
Health problems can be more severe the earlier a preterm baby is born. Babies born extremely preterm make up only a small percent of all births. Yet preterm delivery is the most frequent cause of infant deaths.
Some premature babies require special care. They can spend weeks or months in the hospital. Those who survive may face lifelong problems such as:
- Brain disabilities
- Cerebral palsy
- Breathing and respiratory problems
- Vision and hearing loss
- Feeding and digestive problems
The CDC reports that in most cases, preterm labor begins unexpectedly. The warning signs are:
- Contractions that happen every 10 minutes or more
- Change in vaginal discharge
- Pelvic pressure, or the feeling that the baby is pushing down
- Low, dull backache
- Cramps that feel like a menstrual period
- Abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea
Even if a woman does everything "right" during pregnancy, she can have a premature baby. There are some known risk factors for premature birth.
The known risk factors are:
- Carrying more than one baby, like twins, triplets, quadruplets or more
- Having a previous preterm birth
- Black race
- Problems with the uterus or cervix
- Chronic health problems in the mother, such as high blood pressure or diabetes
- Certain infections during pregnancy
- Cigarette smoking, alcohol use, or illicit drug use during pregnancy
What to do in case of premature labor
If you think you are showing signs of premature labor call your doctor right away. It is natural to be a little nervous during this time. But by taking the following steps, you can help prevent premature labor:
- Empty your bladder
- Lie down tilted towards your left side to slow down or stop signs and symptoms
- Avoid lying flat on your back because it may cause contractions to increase.
- Drink several glasses of water because dehydration can cause contractions.
- Monitor contractions for one hour by counting the minutes from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next
If symptoms worsen or don't disappear after one hour, call your doctor again or go to the hospital. When you call your doctor, say you are concerned that you might have started premature labor.
How does premature labor affect pregnancy?
The longer your baby is in the womb, the better the chance he or she will be healthy. Babies born prematurely are at higher risk of brain and other nervous system problems. Premature births can also cause breathing and digestive problems for babies. Some premature babies grow up and have learning problems in school. The earlier in pregnancy a baby is born, the more health problems are likely to develop.
Premature labor does not always result in premature delivery. Some women with premature labor are put on bed rest until the pregnancy progresses.
Most babies born prior to 24 weeks have little chance of survival. Only about 50 percent will survive. The other 50 percent may die or have permanent problems. However, babies born after 32 weeks have a very high survival rate. These babies usually do not have long-term complications.
Can you prevent babies born prematurely?
USNews.com reports there is no way to guarantee a full-term birth. But pregnant women can take certain steps to increase their odds:
Don't smoke. Smoking by pregnant women may result in fetal injury, premature birth, and low birth weight. It doesn't help to just cut back on smoking. Recent research suggests you have to go cold turkey. The same goes for cigars, hookah pipes, and other smoking-related activities.
Consider getting progesterone shots if you've had a previous preterm birth. Weekly progesterone injections, administered from week 16 through week 34, can help delay early labor. The trick is identifying women most at risk before they actually go into labor. Women who have already given birth to a premature baby are at greater risk. So are those women who were premature babies themselves.
Decrease activity if your doctor tells you. Fewer doctors are suggesting bed rest for pregnant women with any kind of problem. But they might suggest reducing activity if a woman's cervix is short. Or they may suggest rest if a woman has begun to dilate early. The jury is still out over whether this can stop premature labor. But bed rest probably can't hurt.
Eat a healthy diet and get a moderate amount of exercise. Eating right and exercising can help reduce the likelihood of developing pregnancy-related problems.