By definition, premature birth is a birth that occurs before the 37th week of pregnancy (but after the 20th week). Most pregnancies last 40 weeks, however, babies delivered after the 38th week of pregnancy are not considered prematurely born. Preterm delivery is particular dangerous for the baby because he or she has less time to develop. For that reason doctors typically try to stop premature delivery if possible because even a few additional days can significantly reduce the risk of potentially serious complications.
If and which complications prematurely born baby will develop primarily depends on the time of his or her birth. The earlier the birth, the greater the risk of complications. For instance, babies born before the 24th week have very little chance to survive and those few that do survive are more likely to develop permanent health problems. Chances of survival increase, while the risks of health problems decrease with every week. Babies born after the 32th week are unlikely to develop any serious complications of premature birth which include:
- breathing difficulty
- bleeding in the brain
- accumulation of fluid in the brain
- hearing or/and vision problems
- learning problems
- poor motor skills
- neurological problems such as cerebral palsy
- developmental problems
Sometimes health problems caused by preterm birth do not occur until late childhood or adulthood.
Premature birth can be a result of a problem with the baby or the mother, or both. Several factors are associated with increased risk of preterm delivery including multiple pregnancy, stressful life events, injury or trauma, some chronic medical conditions such as diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure), drug or alcohol abuse during pregnancy, cigarette smoking during pregnancy, infections of the uterus, and problems with the uterus, placenta or cervix. However, the exact cause of preterm delivery often remains unknown.
Prematurely born infants are at increased risk of developing potentially serious complications and often need care in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). For that reason it is crucial to learn to recognize the signs of preterm labor in order to receive prompt medical care. Signs of premature labor include:
- regular contractions than last more than one hour
- abdominal cramping (similar to menstrual-cramps) with or without diarrhea
- vaginal bleeding or spotting
- increased vaginal discharge
- low, dull back pain
- fever and increased tiredness
Call your doctor immediately if you think that you may be experiencing signs of premature labor and describe your symptoms. He or she will most likely tell you to go to the nearest hospital where you will be checked for signs of preterm labor. You may be taken urine and blood to identify the cause of preterm labor, and checked if you are leaking amniotic fluid, if your cervix has started to open and perhaps go though some other tests that will help the doctor to determine whether he or she can stop the labor in order to give your baby some extra time. If the labor has progressed too far, you will need to give birth.
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