Premature, or preterm, births are defined as occurring before 37 weeks of pregnancy, with 40 weeks being considered full term. According to the March of Dimes, about 12.8 percent--more than half a million--preterm babies are born in the United States annually. Prematurity poses serious health problems for your baby, such as an increased risk of breathing problems and lifelong disabilities. The rate of premature babies has increased 36 percent since the early 1980s.
Infections in the mother may cause a premature birth. Substances produced by bacteria weaken the membranes around the amniotic sac and cause premature rupture of membranes, or PROM, commonly known as "water breaking." The website Baby Center cites bacterial vaginosis, or BV, as the most common vaginal infection occurring in pregnant women. Symptoms of BV include a thin white or grayish discharge with a strong fishy odor, burning with urination and irritation of the skin in the genital area. Other infections which can cause prematurity are trichomoniosis, gonorrhea and chlamydia. If you suspect an infection while pregnant, see your health care provider right away.
If you have had previous premature births, your risk is higher with each successive pregnancy. Doctors will often use tocolytics--medications to stop contractions--and put you on strict bed rest to avoid a repeat preemie. A strong tocolytic, magnesium sulfate, decreases the risk of cerebral palsy in premature infants while calming down contractions. If a premature birth can be stalled for even several days, you will have time to receive a medication that will mature your baby's lungs quickly, and prepare for delivery in a hospital with a NICU, or neonatal intensive care unit, where the baby will stay until her organ systems work on their own.
Approximately 25 percent of premature babies are scheduled for early induction or cesarean section due to health complications in either the baby or the mom. If the risk of remaining pregnant is higher than the risks of living outside the womb, it will most likely be advised to deliver your baby early. There is also an increase in scheduled deliveries at the parents' request. This could be due to set vacation days, out of town relatives coming at a certain time, or simply because the mother is tired of being pregnant. The March of Dimes cautions parents to wait at least until 39 weeks before inducing or scheduling a C-section.
Maternal Health Problems
Premature births can also be due to a health condition in the mother, including diabetes, heart conditions, lupus, high blood pressure and preeclampsia--also known as toxemia--blood clotting disorders, too little time in-between pregnancies and in vitro fertilization.
The March of Dimes points out that lifestyle factors that can cause prematurity and low birth weight include late or no prenatal care, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, using illegal drugs, being underweight or overweight before getting pregnant, domestic violence, lack of social support, extremely high stress levels and long hours at work, especially standing for long periods of time.
To reduce your risk of premature birth, take 400 mcg of folic acid daily--before and during pregnancy--eat a healthy diet and take multivitamin supplements, go to a preconception visit with a doctor if you have any health conditions, get early and regular prenatal care, and change your current lifestyle, if necessary.