A normal pregnancy lasts for at least 40 weeks, and ideally for 42 weeks. This gives your baby all the time it needs to develop its organs and to prepare itself for life outside the womb. But things do not always go according to plan even with pregnancy. So there is a small chance that the baby may be born early. If your baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy, it will be termed a preterm birth. Preterm birth is a pretty serious pregnancy complication that you should do everything in your power to prevent.
Preterm birth is the same as premature birth. Preterm means before the completion of full term. Fortunately, there are several risk factors of preterm birth that are completely under your control. So indeed avoiding this pregnancy complication is in your hands. But before we get to the prevention of preterm birth, let’s take a look at why exactly it is considered to be such a bad thing, and what the risk factors of this pregnancy complication are.
Complications of Preterm Birth
Your baby needs a full nine months in the safety of your womb to develop sufficiently to survive in the outside world. Even though your baby is fully formed between 37 and 40 weeks, it still needs an extra couple of weeks in the womb for some finishing touches like growing an extra layer of fat to keep it warm for the first few months of life. Preterm birth means that your baby does not get the time it needs to develop fully. Something or the other can remain incomplete,a small but crucial component of your baby’s development may be affected. And it is impossible to predict what, or to reverse the outcome once your baby is born.
The reason preterm birth is such a serious issue is because the complications arising from it do not end when the baby is born or after you have taken it home from the hospital; instead, they last a lifetime. Firstly, there is the chance that the baby will not survive the first few weeks out of the womb. Research has shown that preterm birth is the number one cause of infant death. If this obstacle is overcome, there is always a very high risk that the baby will develop some of the following complications as a result of preterm birth.
- Many preterm birth babies have breathing difficulties since the lungs are one of the last organs to develop. If you are at high risk for preterm birth, you will be given steroids that will help to accelerate the growth of your baby’s lungs. But this may not always work. The breathing problems stemming from preterm birth can lead to asthma and allergies in childhood as well as adulthood. Respiratory disorders are most common among premature birth babies.
- Neurological problems are one of the main complications of preterm birth.
- Some premature babies suffer from bleeding in the brain.
- Cerebral palsy is another complication of preterm birth.
- Some babies born prematurely may be at higher risk for autism.
- A baby born preterm may be deaf or blind or even both. There may not be complete loss of sight or hearing, but there may nevertheless be problems with both.
- Preterm birth increases the mother’s risk for preterm birth in future pregnancies as well.
- Learning difficulties and developmental delays are also common complications of preterm birth.
- Preterm birth babies may be born with low birth weight, which leads to its own set of complications for the baby.
- Anemia is another possible complication of preterm birth.
- Preterm birth may lead to mental retardation.
- Recent studies have revealed that preterm birth may lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes in adulthood.
- The baby is not the only one affected by preterm birth. The mother can face some complications too. For example, the medication that is used to halt the contractions that precede preterm birth have been known to cause fluid to collect in the mother’s lungs. Some of the other preventive measures of preterm birth can cause muscle weakness, abnormalities in blood sugar, and fatigue.
Statistics of Preterm Birth
Preterm birth affects 12% of all pregnancies. But before you worry yourself into a tizzy, consider some of the statistics of preterm birth.
- Preterm birth that occurs between 35 and 37 weeks of pregnancy is considered quite safe and any complications will be short-term, sometimes non-existent.
- Preterm birth that occurs between 29 and 35 weeks of pregnancy is considered very premature, but modern medicine has nevertheless developed to a stage where the complications can be managed. There is a good chance that a baby born during this time will survive. The majority of preterm birth cases fall into this category.
- Preterm birth that occurs between 24 and 28 weeks is considered critically premature. There is a 40% to 50% chance of survival, with the possibility of several health complications plaguing the baby during infancy and adulthood.
- Preterm birth that occurs at or before 23 weeks is very dangerous. Most babies born this early do not survive. If they do, they will have some permanent disability that may hamper their quality of life. Only 6% of all preterm birth cases will fall into this category.
As you can see, there is always a chance that your baby will survive preterm birth. And take heart in the fact that premature babies have shown a strong desire to live and will fight for their lives. And the miraculous advances that have been made in neonatal care don’t hurt their chances either.
Causes of Preterm Birth
Although preterm birth is a widespread phenomenon, no one knows yet why it happens, In most cases, doctors have no clue why preterm birth has occurred, although they can venture some educated guesses based on individual patient history. However, at this point they have done a better job of positively identifying the risk factors associated with preterm birth.
Risk Factors of Preterm Birth
It may be difficult to pinpoint the reasons for preterm birth, but it is simply a matter of astute observation to determine the factors that seem to increase a woman’s risk of giving birth before 40 weeks. Doctors have been able to assess the thousands of cases of preterm birth that they encounter and have come up with the variables that are common to all the cases. This allows them to put together a list of factors that may increase the possibility of preterm birth.
- Preterm birth in a prior pregnancy greatly increases your chances of preterm birth in your current pregnancy.
- If you are pregnant with just one baby through a fertility treatment like IVF, you may be at higher risk for preterm birth.
- Some studies have shown that poor or improper nutrition raises the risk for preterm birth.
- Carrying multiple fetuses is another risk factor for preterm birth.
- A possible risk factor for preterm birth may be a short interval between pregnancies, usually less than six months.
- If your mother took DES when she was pregnant with you, it puts your pregnancy at risk for preterm birth.
- Problems with the placenta like placental previa or placental abruption are huge risk factors for preterm birth.
- If you have experienced abnormal vaginal bleeding during your pregnancy it may put you at a higher risk for preterm birth.
- Cervical insufficiency or an incompetent cervix also increases your risk for preterm birth.
- In fact, any issues at all with the cervix, placenta or uterus can contribute to an increased risk for preterm birth.
- Even vaginal or uterine infections can lead to preterm birth.
- Do you smoke or drink or abuse drugs? Either one of these is a risk factor for not just preterm birth but a host of other pregnancy complications.
- If you suffered from hypertension or had diabetes before you got pregnant, you are at higher risk of preterm birth than your healthier counterparts.
- Stress increases your risk for preterm birth as well as other health problems, during pregnancy and otherwise too.
- Exposure to high levels of pollution or low levels of radiation increase the risk of preterm birth.
- If you were obese or underweight before pregnancy, there is a high possibility of preterm birth with your pregnancy.
- Any kind of trauma to the abdomen can result in preterm birth.
- Have you been a victim of more than one miscarriage in the past? Or have you had more than one abortion, whether for or voluntary? Preterm birth is a likelihood with your pregnancy.
- The age of the mother seems to play a small role in the risk factors of preterm birth. Women younger than 17 and older than 35 years of age are at higher risk.
Be aware though that some women who give birth prematurely may have none of these risk factors at all. So not belonging to any of the above categories does not mean that you are safe from preterm birth, it simply means that there is a very low chance that it will happen to you.
Symptoms of Preterm Birth
Since preterm birth is a pretty serious complication, it would be wise to know the symptoms associated with it. Preterm birth symptoms are the same as the symptoms of regular labor.
- Vaginal bleeding or spotting is a common symptom of preterm birth.
- Preterm birth may lead to a change in vaginal discharge.
- There may be a gush of amniotic fluid – known as water breaking – if preterm birth is occurring.
- Contractions are another common symptom of preterm birth. These will feel like very intense period cramps and will recur several times.
- You may experience some pain in the pelvic area or a degree of pelvic pressure as the fetus presses into your cervix.
- Another symptom of preterm birth is a dull pain in the back.
- Preterm birth may also be indicated by diarrhea.
Preventing Preterm Birth
No pregnancy complications can every really be prevented. Sometimes they just happen no matter what you do or what precautions you take. But that does not mean you give up and just do whatever you want. If you want to avoid preterm birth, then you must first learn as much as you can about it and speak to your doctor about ways in which you can do your best to prevent it from happening to you. There is a lot at stake here so you would be wise to take prevention very, very seriously.
- Quit smoking, drinking, and doing drugs. You may think this is difficult but imagine how much more difficult it will be to deal with one of the complications of preterm birth like disabilities or chronic health problems in your baby. You would be partly responsible if that happened.
- Try to be at healthy weight when you get pregnant. If you are overweight, lose a few kilos before trying for a baby. If you are too thin, then try to pack on the pounds to get you to a more acceptable weight for a healthy pregnancy.
- If you are suffering from a chronic ailment, bring it under control before getting pregnant.
- Right food is the key to good health. And your health is most important during pregnancy. Make sure that the food you eat during pregnancy is wholesome and nutritious. Eat a variety of foods in moderate quantities. Eat balanced meals. If you do not know what a balanced meal looks like or what food are best for pregnancy, make an appointment with a nutritionist.
- If you are at high risk for preterm birth, your doctor will advise you to stay off your feet as much as possible. There may be other guidelines for you to follow depending on your individual situation. For example, many women who are at high risk for preterm birth are advised to stay off sex or to avoid certain positions. Understand thoroughly what the guidelines are, ask your doctor why you are doing them, and follow them to a T.
- Research suggests that there may be a connection between dental health and preterm birth. So brush those pearly whites and floss daily.
- Just as important as your physical health is your mental health. Stress is a silent, sneaky devil that can wreak havoc on your body during pregnancy. If you do not control your stress, it will control you in some very nasty ways. If certain people or situations are stressful, avoid them. Take up a hobby or indulge in activities that you know are calming. Spend time with loved ones and even alone if you enjoy it. Do whatever it takes to keep stress to a minimum.
- To get good advice, you have to have a good doctor. So seek good prenatal care right from the start. Many couples are so meticulous about prenatal care that they will seek a specialist even before they get pregnant. You need not be so fastidious. But you should definitely put in time and committed effort into seeking quality prenatal care.
- If you are at particularly high risk of preterm birth, your doctor may suggest progesterone injections on a regular basis during the course of your pregnancy as some studies suggest that progesterone may reduce the risk preterm birth.
- Stick to your doctor’s appointments. Your doctor may catch something in one of your regular checkups that will help her identify a risk factor that you may be able to bring under control or eliminate altogether depending on what it is. If you are at high risk for preterm birth, your doctor will ask you to come in more often, maybe once a week or once in ten days.