Preterm labor can cause a baby to be born prematurely which is a serious health risk mothers want to avoid for their newborns. Most full-term pregnancies last around 40 weeks, but sometimes the cervix begins to widen early and contractions start before they are supposed to. If this happens anywhere from weeks 20 to 37, it is considered to be preterm labor. Currently in the United States about one out of every eight pregnancies or 12% of all pregnancies result in a premature baby. While no one knows exactly what causes premature babies, there are things you can do to prevent it. But first, what are the risks?
When a baby is in the womb, it is in the best environment for maximum growth. The longer the baby can be maintained in the womb, the better the outcome of the pregnancy. The goal is always to keep the baby in this ideal environment for as long as possible. However, most doctors will not recommend a prolonged gestation period past 42 weeks. If the mother goes into preterm labor, there is a risk that the baby will have trouble breathing, have a low birth weight, have organs that are not fully developed, and be at higher risk for infections which can be deadly. Later in life, these babies can be at increased risk for developmental problems, learning disabilities and behavioral issues. So which pregnancies are most at risk for having a premature baby or a “preemie”?
If you have had another pregnancy that resulted in a preterm labor, you are always at an increased risk of having another premature delivery. The other two main high-risk groups are women who are having births of multiples such as twins or triplets and women who have deformities with their cervix or uterus. If a woman has one of these risk factors, her pregnancy will be more closely monitored but it does not necessarily mean she will have a preterm birth. Also, women who do not have any of these risk factors can go into preterm labor. Scientific research is still being done in the area of premature deliveries. Doctors can now sometimes try to determine which pregnancies might not last full term but it is not 100%. There are some medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity that can also increase the chances of an early birth. It is important to discuss with your medical provider if you might be at risk. Doctors can provide guidelines to help mothers do everything in their power to help the baby stay in the ideal womb environment for as long as they can.
Some of the things that a mother can do to increase the chances of her pregnancy going full term are: to have consistent prenatal care, focus on a healthy diet and exercise per your doctor’s recommendations, do not smoke, drink or use drugs, and use stress management techniques such as yoga or meditation. If, despite doing these healthy things during your pregnancy, you start to feel you are going into labor early, the most important thing is to get to the doctor or your hospital as soon as possible. Early labor might feel like contractions, pelvic cramps, a low back ache, or vaginal discharge. Do not worry about feeling silly that it might be a false alarm. You want to be safe first and foremost and there are medicines that can be given early on to give your baby the very best chances. As long as you know the signs of preterm labor and are ready to respond to them, there is a much better chance that your pregnancy will be successful.
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