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Preterm Birth

A full-term birth is 40 weeks. Babies born prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy are called preterm or premature. Premature babies are born small and are at high-risk for serious health problems after birth as well as later in life. Additionally, the earlier the birth, the greater the chance for complications.

If a woman is at high-risk for having a premature baby, she may need to remain in the hospital until the baby is born. After a preterm birth, the baby will remain in the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) until they mature, gain weight and are well enough to go home.

Problems associated with premature infants include:

  • Breathing problems, such as infant respiratory distress syndrome
  • Inability to maintain body temperature
  • Difficulty feeding and gaining weight
  • Neurologic problems
  • Infections
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

Your gynecologist can help you stay healthy through your pregnancy so you are less likely to give birth to a premature baby. However, it is important to recognize that sometimes there are factors you cannot change.

Risk Factors for Preterm Labor or Birth

  • Younger than 17 or older than 35
  • African-Americans
  • Previously given birth to a premature baby
  • Pregnant with twins, triplets or more babies
  • Problems with the uterus or cervix

There are other risk factors that can contribute to preterm birth such as:

  • Dealing with health ongoing health conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure
  • Getting pregnant too soon after having a baby
  • Being underweight or overweight before or during pregnancy
  • Getting late or no health care during pregnancy
  • Vaginal bleeding in your second or third trimester
  • Having a sexually transmitted disease (STD) or urinary tract infection (UTI)
  • Premature rupture of the membranes (your “water breaks”)
  • Being pregnant due to in vitro fertilization (IVF)
  • Being pregnant with a baby who has a birth defects
  • Having a family history of premature birth
  • Exposure to a hormone known as DES

Signs of Preterm Labor

If you notice these signs of labor prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy, you should go to the hospital right away:

  • Cramping
  • Backache
  • Contractions every 10 minutes (or more often)
  • Fluid leaking from your vagina
  • Feeling nauseous

Treating Preterm Labor

If a woman goes into preterm labor, it is better for the mother and the fetus if the labor is allowed to progress so the baby can be born. However, if the doctor determines it is better to try to slow or stop the labor, there are several medications available that can help. The doctor may also give the mother injections that will help the fetus’ lungs mature, in case they are born premature.

Reducing Risk of Preterm Birth

Many times, there is nothing you can do to prevent preterm birth, such as if you are pregnant with twins or triplets. However there are some lifestyle changes you can make that can help reduce your risk such as:

  • Quit smoking
  • Don’t use or abuse alcohol and drugs
  • Reduce stress
  • Avoid standing for many hours at a time
  • Avoid pollutants