When a baby is born at least three weeks before a baby’s due date (or less than 37 weeks—full term is 40 weeks) it is called a preterm birth. Important growth and development occur throughout pregnancy—especially in the final months and weeks. Many organ systems, including the brain, lungs, and liver need the final weeks of pregnancy to develop fully.
If you are healthy and you are having a normal pregnancy, current research indicates that delivery should not be scheduled before 39 weeks gestation. The earlier a baby is born, the more severe his or her health problems are likely to be. Some premature babies require special care and spend weeks or months hospitalized in a neonatal intensive care unit called a neonatal intensive care unit or NICU.
Also, there is a higher risk of serious disability or death the earlier the baby is born. Some problems that a baby born too early may face include: breathing problems, feeding difficulties, vision problems, developmental delay, hearing impairment and cerebral palsy. Preterm births also may cause emotional and economic burdens for families.
Pregnant women can take important steps to help reduce their risk of preterm birth and improve their general health. These steps are to quit smoking, avoid alcohol, get prenatal care as soon as you think you may be pregnant and throughout the pregnancy and seek medical attention for any warning signs or symptoms of preterm labor.
Even if a woman does everything “right” during pregnancy, she still can have a premature baby. There are some known risk factors for premature birth. For example, one risk factor is having a previous preterm birth. Additionally, although most black women give birth at term, on average, black women are about 60% more likely to have a premature baby compared to white women.
Other factors 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, blood clotting disorders and certain infections during pregnancy.
Although most babies born just a few weeks early do well and have no health issues, some do 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 have to stay longer in the hospital.
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 your doctor may be able to help you and your baby. Warning signs include contractions every 10 minutes or more often, change in your vaginal discharge (leaking fluid or bleeding from the vagina), pelvic pressure, low, dull backache, cramps that feel like menstrual cramps and abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea.
A progesterone medication may prevent preterm birth among women who have had a prior preterm birth. If you think you are experiencing preterm labor, it is important that you see a doctor right away. If you are having preterm labor, the doctor may be able to give you medicine so that the baby will be healthier at birth.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website provides some helpful information on prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/pregnancy/during.html
You can also learn more about caring for your of your premature baby from the Healthy Children website sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/preemie/Pages/Caring-For-A-Premature-Baby.aspx