Erica Berven, M.D.
Obstetrics & Gynecology (OB-GYN)
It may be scary to think about the possibility of having your baby before its due date. A birth is considered premature if the baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy, which is about a month before the due date. Although you may feel uncomfortable, talk with your health care team and family about what to do if early labor or premature birth occurs.
About 1 in 10 babies in the U.S. is born prematurely. Preterm birth is identified by the number of completed weeks of pregnancy:
- Late preterm — Baby born between 34 and 36 weeks
- Moderately preterm — Baby born between 32 and 34 weeks
- Very preterm — Baby born between 28 and 32 weeks
- Extremely preterm — Baby born before 28 weeks
Complications of preterm birth include underdeveloped brain and lungs, digestive and liver problems, and infections. Premature birth also can affect the baby long term. Some of the most common long-term effects include neurological problems, such as cerebral palsy, or chronic medical problems, such as lung disease.
Survival rate for premature babies increasing
With today's technology, the survival rate of babies born as early as 25 weeks ranges from 70% to 90%. Although this is good news, it's still important to be cautious throughout your pregnancy and know the risk factors that increase the likelihood of preterm labor.
Risk factors for preterm birth include:
- Previous premature births
- Pregnancy with twins, triplets or other multiples
- Smoking or illicit drug use
- Having high blood pressure
- Having gestational diabetes
- Experiencing chronic stress
- Pregnancies spaced less than six months apart
- Structural or functional problems with the uterus, cervix or placenta
- Uterine or kidney infection
- Being overweight or underweight
Complex social or economic factors also are associated with preterm delivery. Health care disparities may present barriers to receiving care during pregnancy, which can lead to preterm delivery. Black and American Indian women are about 50% more likely to have preterm deliveries than other demographic groups. But premature birth can happen to anyone, and many preterm births have no known risk factors.
Monitoring your health and your baby's
Your health care team may decide to induce your labor before the due date when it's necessary for the safety of you or your baby. Your care team will carefully monitor you and your baby during your prenatal visits to track your health and the baby's health.
Precautions to take during pregnancy to avoid premature birth include:
- Healthy eating
- Getting plenty of rest
- Following weight-gain guidelines
- Avoiding alcohol and smoking
Following these steps, along with other guidance from your health care team, helps ensure the best outcome for you and your baby.
Identifying risk factors that can be modified through lifestyle changes can reduce the chances of preterm birth. Knowing the signs of premature labor is crucial to beginning the appropriate care as soon as possible.
Signs of preterm labor include:
- Contractions — the intermittent tightening of your abdomen — which aren't relieved with rest or drinking water
- Vaginal bleeding
- Cramping, a feeling similar to menstrual cramps
- Increase or change in vaginal discharge
- Pelvic pressure, or the feeling that the baby is pushing down
Contact your health care team if you have questions about your risk of preterm birth or are experiencing symptoms of premature labor.