Premature Birth: Understanding Your Risk - Baby Chick
Subscribe Search

Premature Birth: Understanding Your Risk

An OB-GYN explains who's at risk for premature birth, whether there's any way to prevent it, and tips for managing a premature birth.

Published April 14, 2017

by Jill Hechtman

Obstetrics/Gynecology, MD

Approximately 1 in 10 pregnancies in the United States will result in a premature birth. This is one of the highest rates in the developed world.1 Premature birth is the leading cause of newborn death globally, and it can happen to anyone.2 Although its prevalence is remarkably high, premature birth remains a puzzle for medical professionals across the world who struggle to identify why so many babies are born too early. However, we know that certain people may be at risk for premature birth.1

Premature birth is defined as delivering between 20 and 37 weeks.3 Since babies are technically not ready to leave the womb, they are subject to a variety of physical and developmental challenges if they are born early. Some short-term challenges include brain bleeds, heart problems, lung and breathing issues, challenges with regulating body temperature, and gastrointestinal conditions. Additional long-term conditions like vision, hearing, dental, behavioral, and psychological problems can occur.4 Needless to say, premature birth is a serious health issue that all expectant moms should know about.

Who Is at Risk for Premature Birth?

If you have had a premature birth previously, this is your biggest risk factor for potentially delivering early again.5 Other common risk factors raise red flags for doctors, including problems with the cervix or placenta, short intervals between pregnancies, infection, or other health conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes.1,2,5,6 Conceiving via in-vitro fertilization (IVF), carrying multiples (twins or triplets), poor nutrition and diet, or drug and alcohol abuse may also put you at risk.1,3,7 All of this said, 40% of women who give birth prematurely are first-time moms.9 About 50% of those who deliver early have zero symptoms.8,9

Is There Any Way To Prevent Premature Birth?

According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, there are limited treatments to prevent premature birth.10 Leading a healthy lifestyle while pregnant is the first step to having a healthy baby. Furthermore, having as much information as you can about your pregnancy and developing baby is also an important way to ensure the health of your unborn child.

Tips for Managing Premature Birth

Here are some tips to help you proactively manage your pregnancy:

Familiarize Yourself With the Symptoms of Premature Labor

Premature labor means your body is preparing for birth earlier than your due date. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some of these warning signs include:1

  • Cramping in the lower abdomen (similar to menstrual cramping)
  • A dull backache
  • Frequent contractions that exist in 10-minute-or-less intervals
  • Increased pelvic pressure (like baby is pushing down)
  • Vaginal bleeding or fluid leaking from the vagina

Call your doctor immediately if you experience any of these symptoms before your due date.

Predict Your Risk of Delivering Early With a New Blood Test

A new prenatal test that predicts your individualized risk of having a premature birth became available in recent years. The PreTRM test is a blood test your doctor orders that is taken during weeks 19 and 20 of pregnancy. It measures and analyzes specific proteins in the blood that are highly predictive of premature birth. If you’re carrying one baby (not twins!) and don’t have symptoms, this test can give you and your doctor helpful insight into your pregnancy and whether you may be at risk for delivering early.9

Knowing your risk of premature birth provides doctors with important information they need to proactively monitor the pregnancy and intervene if the result is high-risk. There are established interventions designed to help prolong a pregnancy, including increased surveillance or monitoring (cervical length measurements, screening for infection), progesterone therapy, pelvic rest, and increased doctor visits to monitor baby.3,11,12,13 Knowing you are high-risk also allows you to prepare for early delivery and identify the right hospital and specialists to care for baby after delivery. Alternatively, receiving a low-risk result can give you peace of mind and reassurance that the pregnancy is progressing according to plan — one less thing to worry about!

Knowledge Is Power

Pregnancy is a time of great joy and excitement but also anxiety and nerves. Having as much information as possible about the health of your growing baby can help put your mind at ease, particularly as it relates to premature birth. As I often tell my patients, every 24 hours is a miracle. Every day that baby can remain in utero is an extremely positive, significant step in their development. Knowledge is power — the more information you have about your baby, the better prepared you will be to ensure the health of your newborn child.

View Sources +
Was this article helpful?
  • Author
Jill Hechtman, M.D
Jill Hechtman Obstetrics/Gynecology, MD
  • Social

Dr. Jill Hechtman is the Medical Director of Tampa Obstetrics and the past Chairman of Obstetrics and Gynecology at St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital in Tampa. She is the past Chairman… Read more

Subscribe to our newsletter