Newborns are considered to be premature if they come into the world before 37 weeks instead of the usual 38 to 42 weeks. Premature babies weigh much less than full-term babies and may have health problems because their organs didn’t have time to develop.
A premature birth can be a terrifying and shocking experience, especially if the due date is months away. The impact on parents can be devastating.
A pre-term delivery can happen to any woman, even those at low risk, so it’s a good idea to learn the signs of pre-term labour.
The good news is that babies born up to 8 weeks early have about the same chances of survival and normal development as babies born full term. Babies born after 24 to 25 weeks are mature enough to survive, although they’ll need a long period in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and could need special premature baby care when they go home.
What causes premature babies?
About half of prematurity cases are unexplained, although researchers have identified those at greatest risk of having a premature baby are:
- Women who have had a previous premature birth
- Women who are pregnant with twins, triplets or more
- Women with certain uterine or cervical abnormalities
- Teenagers giving birth for the first time
- Women over 37 having their first baby
Medical risks for prematurity
Certain medical conditions during your pregnancy may increase the likelihood of prematurity. These conditions include:
- Urinary tract infections, vaginal infections, sexually transmitted infections and possibly other infections
- High blood pressure
- Clotting disorders (thrombophilia)
- Bleeding from the vagina
- Certain birth defects in the baby
- Being pregnant with a single fetus after in vitro fertilization (IVF)
- Being underweight before pregnancy
- Short time period between pregnancies (less than 6-9 months between birth and the beginning of the next pregnancy)
Lifestyle risks for prematurity
Some studies have found that certain lifestyle factors increase the risk of prematurity. These factors are:
- Late or no prenatal care
- Smoking – around 10% of prematurity cases are attributed to smoking
- Excessive alcohol or other drugs
- Domestic violence, including physical, sexual or emotional abuse
The effects of prematurity
Many will grow up healthy but others aren’t so lucky. Even with the best of care, prematurity can result in lasting disabilities such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, learning problems, chronic lung disease, and vision & hearing problems. Half of all neurological disabilities in children are related to prematurity.
Premature babies are also at greater risk from Respiratory Syncytial Virus which is the most common cause of lower-respiratory-tract infection in babies and children and highly contagious. In babies with prematurity, RSV may cause life-threatening conditions.
What can women do?
Remember, even if you have one of these risk factors, it does not mean you’ll definitely give birth early. It just means there’s a greater of risk of prematurity. Still, knowing there’s risk is scary, so please learn the signs of pre-term labour.
As with any pregnancy, aim for optimum health and wellbeing, starting with good preconception nutrition and fitness. Quit smoking if you’re a smoker and avoid alcohol and drugs. Also, visit your GP as soon as you know you’re pregnant to plan your antenatal care, including regular ultrasounds. Stress can be a contributing factor to prematurity so take easy, learn relaxation techniques if you’re prone to stress, and pull back from tasks, commitments and people that induce stress. Pregnancy is a wonderful time to be a woman – sit back, relax and enjoy it as much as possible.
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Last Published* October, 2023
*Please note that the published date may not be the same as the date that the content was created and that information above may have changed since.