Every year in the United States, nearly half a million babies die from illnesses related to premature birth. Premature birth is the number one cause of death of babies in the United States—one of the worst among high-resource nations like the U.S. A premature baby is defined as one who is born too early–before 37 weeks. Premature babies often have more health problems than full term babies and may need to spend some time in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.) November has been designated Prematurity Awareness Month, a time of year set aside to raising awareness about the mostly preventable complication of preterm birth.
The earlier in pregnancy a baby is born, the more likely they are to struggle with health problems such as respiratory difficulty, heart failure, brain development issues, organ failure, gastrointestinal distress, and infections. While most babies born with these types of issues spend at least some time under the care of NICU staff, a few premature babies may be healthy enough upon birth to go home shortly after being born. To arrive home, the premature baby must gain weight steadily, breath on his/her own, weigh at least 4 pounds, can keep warm on their own, and can eat from the breast or the bottle.
While many medical advances have been made to treat a baby if it’s born too early, there have been few steps taken to educate expecting parents about what they can do to prevent preterm labor at all. The best way to protect your child from preterm birth and yourself from preterm labor is to reduce the risks surrounding the complication:
1. Get early and consistent prenatal care. As soon as you know you’re pregnant, or if you’re actively trying to get pregnant, see your healthcare provider. He or she can advise you on the best ways to prepare your body for a long and healthy pregnancy, as well as prescribe you a prenatal vitamin, which provides essential nutrients to support your growing child.
2. Educate yourself on risk factors. Certain women may be more at risk for preterm labor than others. High blood pressure, diabetes, smoking or drug use, being over 35 years of age, being African-American and carrying multiples are all risk factors for preterm labor. Your doctor can help you find the best way to mitigate these risks.
3. Get tested. Certain types of infections may prevent your body’s ability to sustain a pregnancy to term. Recognizing these infections and treating them properly may reduce your preterm labor risk by up to 30%.
4. Manage your weight. Ask your doctor what the right amount of weight gain is for you during your pregnancy and try your best to stick to an exercise and eating plan that works for you. Pregnancy cravings are strong, but gaining too much weight during pregnancy can lead to conditions like gestational diabetes and preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy), conditions that increase preterm labor risk.
5. Eat well and exercise. One of the simplest things to do to prevent preterm labor is to eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly. Simple switches like whole-wheat bread instead of white, or Greek yogurt instead of plain increases the nutritional value of your food. Omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and Vitamin C are essential to building healthy bones, brains, and muscles in your baby.
6. Check your medications. Ensure that the medications you are taking during your pregnancy do not carry a high risk of preterm labor and that the side effects do not include any condition that is considered a risk for preterm birth. For pregnant women taking anti-anxiety or anti-depressants, consult your doctor if you feel you should switching medications.
7. Recognize the signs. How do you know if you’re in preterm labor? If it’s a significant amount of time before your due date and you have contractions that occur every ten minutes or more, fluid leakage, pelvic pressure, lower back pain, or abdominal cramps. If you are concerned about preterm labor, call your doctor right away.
It’s important to remember that the vast majority of pregnancies end with healthy, full-term babies. That’s why Prematurity Awareness Month was created—to ensure that we as a community understand the risks of preterm birth, so we can do everything in our power to prevent it. If by chance you do deliver your child earlier than 37 weeks, there are resources available to you. To learn more about our NICU, please click here.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article, including text and images, are for informational purposes only and do not constitute a medical service. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health professional for medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment.