Most pregnancies last about 40 weeks. By definition, a premature birth takes place more than three weeks before the due date.
A premature birth gives a baby less time to develop and mature in the womb. The result is an increased risk of various medical and developmental problems, including trouble breathing and bleeding in the brain. If you go into labor too early, your doctor may try to delay your baby's birth. Even if premature birth is inevitable, a few extra days in the womb can promote significant development.
Although the rate of premature birth seems to be on the rise, there's good news. A healthy lifestyle can go a long way toward preventing preterm labor and premature birth.
Prompt recognition of preterm labor may help you prevent premature birth. Even months before your due date, be on the lookout for:
When to see a doctor
If you're at risk of preterm labor or premature birth, your health care provider may recommend more-frequent visits.
Often, the specific cause of preterm labor or premature birth isn't clear. Many factors may increase the risk of early labor and premature birth, however, including:
For unknown reasons, black women are more likely to experience preterm labor and premature birth than are women of other races. But preterm labor and premature birth can happen to anyone. In fact, many women who have a premature birth have no known risk factors.
Preterm labor and premature birth may have various complications.
On a more positive note, your doctor can give you medications that will increase the rate your baby matures in the uterus. These can have a beneficial impact in as little as 48 hours.
Your health care provider will weigh the potential risks from medications used to stop labor against the risks for your baby if he or she is born too soon.
Complications of premature birth may include:
Less serious complications may include:
For some premature babies, difficulties may not appear until later in childhood or even adulthood. Not performing well in school is often a prime concern. Some studies suggest that premature babies may face an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adulthood.
But not all preemies have medical or developmental problems. By 28 to 30 weeks, the risk of serious complications is much lower. And for babies born between 32 and 36 weeks, most medical problems related to premature birth are short term.
Preparing for your appointment
If you develop any of the signs or symptoms of preterm labor, call the doctor who is caring for you during pregnancy (obstetrical care provider) right away. Depending on the circumstances, your doctor may recommend immediate medical care.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Below are some basic questions to ask your doctor about preterm labor and premature birth. If any additional questions occur to you during your visit, don't hesitate to ask.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
If preterm labor seems likely, your health care provider will check to see if your cervix has begun to dilate and whether the fetal membranes have ruptured. The duration and spacing of your contractions may be closely monitored. In some cases, your health care provider may use ultrasound to monitor the length of your cervix. A swab from the cervical canal may be tested for the presence of fetal fibronectin, a glue-like tissue that's discharged during labor.
If you're in preterm labor, you and your health care provider will discuss the risks and benefits of trying to stop your labor.
Treatments and drugs
Treatment may focus on women in preterm labor or on newborns after delivery.
Specialized care for your baby may include:
Your baby's caregivers will help you learn how to touch and eventually hold and feed your baby. Talk or sing softly to your baby, or simply provide quiet company.
Taking your baby home
Your baby's health care team will help you learn how to care for your baby at home. Keep in mind that preemies are more susceptible than are other newborns to serious infections, and their illnesses tend to progress more quickly. Schedule frequent checkups for your baby. Routine checkups are a great time to ask questions about caring for your baby.
Intensive care for your premature baby
In the hospital, your baby may first be monitored unclothed on a warmer bed. Later your baby will probably be in an incubator, an enclosed plastic bassinet that's kept warm to help your baby maintain ...
Coping and support
Caring for a premature baby can be physically and emotionally exhausting. You may be anxious about your baby's health and the long-term effects of premature birth. You may feel angry, guilty or overwhelmed. Some of these suggestions may help during this difficult time:
Remember, caring for a premature baby is a great challenge. Take it one day at a time.
A healthy lifestyle can go a long way toward preventing preterm labor and premature birth.
If you have a history of premature birth or significant risk factors for premature birth, your health care provider may suggest weekly shots of a form of progesterone. Although much remains to be learned about progesterone therapy, initial studies suggest that progesterone may help prevent preterm labor and premature birth in some women.
Last Updated: 2009-11-25
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