Premature birth affects many families; in fact, the World Health Organization claims that worldwide, 1 in 10 babies are born prematurely (and in the U.S., it’s 1 in 8.) Chances are that a number of our Baby Sleep Site™ readers have been touched by this medical complication.
What is Premature Birth, and Why Is It So Dangerous?
A baby born before 37 weeks is considered premature. While prematurity might not seem like a life-threatening medical issue, research indicates that it is. In fact, premature birth is the second leading cause of death among newborns worldwide, after pneumonia.
Dr. Joy Lawn, co-author of the Born Too Soon study, a study on premature birth trends worldwide, had this to say:
“Being born to soon is an unrecognized killer. There has been much progress in penumonia [treatment and prevention], and diarrhea as a cause of death has seen a major drop, but preterm birth as not been on anyone’s ‘to do’ list.”
Preterm birth can cause many different kinds of life-threatening complications for newborns. Respiratory issues like apnea are common among premature babies; so are heart and brain development issues, jaundice, anemia, and infection.
Those babies who do survive premature birth are at greater risk for developing long-term, permanent complications as a result of being born too early. Those complications include permanent vision and hearing loss, chronic lung problems, cerebral palsy, and autism.
Who Is Affected By Premature Birth?
Premature birth is a global epidemic, according to new research. It affects pregnant mothers of every color and creed, in every country around the world. Both underdeveloped and developed nations are at risk.
While women in every country around the world are at risk for preterm birth, the rates of newborn survival after premature birth vary greatly from country to country. In developed nations, like the United States, for example, only about 10% of premature babies die as a result of their preterm birth. In underdeveloped nations, however, the rates can be much higher — as high as 90%.
This huge difference is a result of unequal access to quality medical care; babies born in developed nations are more likely to have higher quality medical care, while babies born in developing nations don’t. Those babies are far more likely to die of infection and malnutrition.
What Causes Premature Birth?
The answer to this question isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Truth is, it depends on where you live.
In underdeveloped countries, premature birth is often caused by infection and disease. In developed nations, however, the causes are radically different. In developed countries like the U.S., preterm birth has been linked to obesity, by older age in mothers, and by pregnancy with multiples due to fertility treatments.
Some risk factors depend on a mother’s location; others don’t. Stress, for example, crosses geographic and socioeconomic lines, and high levels of stress put a mother at risk for preterm delivery.
Overall, factors that contribute to premature birth include:
- Smoking during pregnancy
- Drug and alcohol use during pregnancy
- Poor prenatal care
- Poor nutrition
- Physical abnormalities of uterus
- Pregnancy with multiples
- High stress levels
- Obesity and obesity-related conditions (high blood pressure)
- Being underweight
- Multiple miscarriages or abortions
- Increased age of mother
- Social factors related to mother (poverty, lack of education, etc.)
- Early Cesarean sections
Can Premature Birth Be Prevented?
Some of the factors listed above can’t be prevented. You can’t alter your age, for example, and you can’t change your medical history.
However, a number of those factors can be prevented. In order to give your baby the best chance at being born full-term, do the following:
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Eat a healthy diet during your pregnancy, and seek proper prenatal care.
- During your pregnancy, don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or use drugs.
- During your pregnancy, report any illnesses or signs of infection to your healthcare provider immediately.
- Work to keep your stress level low (easier said than done, we know!)
Sometimes, however, even the best measured of prevention don’t ward off preterm labor. In these cases, it’s best if a woman knows the signs of early labor and seeks medical care right away. Signs of preterm labor include:
- Five or more contractions in an hour
- Watery fluid leaking from your vagina (could indicate that your water has broken)
- Menstrual-like cramps that come and go
- Dull pain in your lower back
- Pelvic pressure
- Increase or change in vaginal discharge
If you experience any of these symptoms, do the following:
- Empty your bladder.
- Lie on your left side. (Don’t lie flat on your back; this can make contractions worse.)
- Drink several glasses of water (dehydration can cause contractions.)
- Monitor your contractions for one hour to see if they go away.
If the steps above don’t reduce your symptoms of pre-term labor, seek medical attention right away. Doctors can administer magnesium sulfate, a medication that can stop preterm labor.
What Can I Do To Help?
There are a number of organizations worldwide that work to spread the word and educate families about the risks of premature birth, and about steps that pregnancy mothers can take to prevent preterm birth.
One such organization is the March of Dimes. Donations made to organizations like these help children and families around the world receive the education and care they need to ensure healthy lives.