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What Parents Need to Know About Preterm Birth

Blog What Parents Need to Know About Preterm Birth

“Things that might be associated with preterm labor are smoking, anemia, a history of preterm birth in the past, multiple gestations such as having twins or triplets, underlying disease such as diabetes or asthma, infections, cervical insufficiency, race, stress, and a whole lot of other factors.”


Most parents eagerly await the arrival of their little one, but you don’t want your baby to be born too early. That’s because babies born before 37 weeks, often called preemies, can come with a slew of complications and typically have to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Preterm birth is one of the leading causes of infant deaths in the United States, and a new March of Dimes report found that premature births has increased in the U.S. for the first time in eight years.

The exact reason for the rise remains a mystery, though there are probably multiple factors that play into it. “We don’t really know what causes preterm labor, nor do we really know what causes a woman to go into labor in general,” says Dr. Lauren Dungy-Poythress, a maternal fetal medicine specialist with Riley Children’s Health. “Things that might be associated with preterm labor are smoking, anemia, a history of preterm birth in the past, multiple gestations such as having twins or triplets, underlying disease such as diabetes or asthma, infections, cervical insufficiency, race, stress, and a whole lot of other factors.”

Steps to Help Prevent Pre-Term Birth

“You can’t change factors such as your race or having multiples, but there are things you can do to lower your risk of pre-term birth, such as waiting 18 months between pregnancies,” says Dr. Dungy-Poythress. “Also, you want to have optimal health before you get pregnant.” Take prenatal vitamins and eat healthy food. Keep up your exercise routine. If you smoke, quit. If you have an underlying condition such as high blood pressure, take steps to control it as best you can.

Risks to Baby

“The more premature your baby is, the most complicated the risk because babies are constantly growing in the uterus even after key organs are formed,” says Dr. Dungy-Poythress. “The brain continues to develop even after birth.” That’s why there’s increased risk for developmental delays. Your baby may also have trouble coordinating her sucking and swallowing due to lack of neural development, need an incubator to regulate body temperature and/or a ventilator to help her breathe as her lungs are still developing.  Vision and hearing problems may also be an issue.

Life in the NICU

“It’s a case-by-case basis as far as what to expect,” says Dr. Dungy-Poythress. “Knowledge is power, so if you know for some reason you may need to deliver early, take a tour of the NICU. It helps to see what’s happening.” You definitely won’t be alone: The NICU has comprehensive teams of specialists, from nurses to nutritionists to social workers to lactation consultants and more.

“Know that there are support groups and families who have gone through something similar to what you may be going through,” says Dr. Dungy-Poythress. “Don’t get discouraged by set backs on any given day, but look your baby’s overall progression over a couple of weeks.” Despite the setbacks, the good news is that pre-term babies can grow up to be just as healthy as babies born full-term.

-- By Holly Corbett

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