Preterm birth is defined as delivering a baby before 37 weeks of gestation.
Babies born too early are at risk for several complications that tend to be more and more serious the earlier the babies are born. Complications related to prematurity can affect all the babies’ organ systems: lung function, heart function, vision, temperature regulation, feeding difficulties, gastrointestinal complications, brain effects, and all other organ systems that don’t have a chance to mature completely.
Every year, preterm birth affects approximately 12 percent of babies born in the United States and over 15 million babies worldwide. Preterm births result in 1 million deaths annually.
While the exact reasons why some women deliver their babies too early are often not known, there are several underlying processes believed to contribute significantly to preterm labor and birth. These include infections, multiple gestations, and excessive stretching of the uterus from too much amniotic fluid.
There are a number of risk factors for preterm birth, and some of these can be prevented. They include:
- History of a previous preterm delivery
- Smoking and illicit drug use
- Multiple gestations (twins, triplets)
- Short spacing of pregnancies (less than 6 months between pregnancies)
- Extreme ages (less than 18 years old or over 40 years old)
- Periodontal disease
- Certain infections (kidney, or sexually transmitted)
- Uterine anomalies
- Excessive stress/anxiety/depression
- Being underweight or overweight
- Low socioeconomic status
- History of surgery on cervix (multiple Dilation and Curettage procedures, and/or Leep procedures).
Some methods to prevent or decrease a woman’s risk of preterm birth are:
- Smoking cessation
- Avoidance of alcohol and illicit drug use in pregnancy
- Progesterone supplementation for women with a history of a previous preterm birth or with a shortened cervix
- Good nutrition with high-quality prenatal vitamins
- Regular prenatal care
- Surveillance of cervical length in high risk patients and cervical cerclage, if indicated
- Good control of health problems before getting pregnant: high blood pressure and diabetes
- VIGILANCE and notification of your doctor for the warning signs and symptoms of preterm labor: cramping, vaginal pressure, vaginal bleeding, low back-ache, and loose stools with cramping.
Dr. Wendy Askew
The Institute for Women’s Health