Why are some babies born early? Here we look at the possible Causes of Premature Birth as well as ways to prevent it in mothers who are at risk.
As Moms-to-be enter the third trimester of their pregnancy, they start getting excited about meeting their new baby. Many of them even say, “How I wish I could meet my baby now!”
While this is being said purely out of excitement, seriously speaking, that’s one thing Moms shouldn’t be wishing for! The longer the baby stays in the womb, the more time it has to develop properly and thrive in the outside world. The last few weeks of pregnancy are crucial for proper brain and lung development. However, sometimes, babies arrive a lot earlier than expected, and a premature birth like this can create some challenges.
What is a premature birth?
Very few babies are born exactly on their due date; many are born before it. So how early is considered premature?
A baby is considered full term if it completes a gestation period of 39 weeks. When babies are born before 37 weeks, it is considered a preterm birth and the baby is called a premature infant or a preemie.
How premature the baby is also makes a difference to his or her health. For this purpose, doctors have further classified premature babies as:
- Late preterm – born between 34 and 36 weeks of pregnancy
- Moderately preterm – born between 32 and 34 weeks of pregnancy
- Very preterm – born at less than 32 weeks of pregnancy
- Extremely preterm – born at or before 25 weeks of pregnancy
Most premature births occur in the late preterm stage. The earlier the baby is born, the more complicated the birth and the bigger the risk to the baby.
Facts about Preterm Birth
- Out of all the world countries, India is the country with the greatest number of preterm births
- Every year, an estimated 15 million babies are born preterm
- Preterm birth is the leading cause of death among newborns
- In 2015, approximately 1 million children under the age of 5 died due to preterm birth complications
- Three-quarters of preterm deaths can be prevented
- More than 60% of preterm births occur in Africa and South Asia, with poorer families at higher risk
Due to the potential health problems for babies, doctors are always on the lookout for signs that may indicate that a baby may be born prematurely, so that adequate arrangements may be made. Most of the time, the cause for a premature birth is unknown but there are still many factors that can be possible causes for premature birth,
10 Possible Causes of Premature Birth
1. Existing Medical Conditions
If the pregnant woman has a pre-existing medial condition or chronic illness, she’s highly likely to have a premature birth. These conditions include diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney disease, among others. Women who are overweight or underweight before and during pregnancy also have a higher risk for premature births.
2. History of Premature Births
If a woman has delivered a premature baby previously, it is two and a hlaf times more likely for her to have another premature birth for subsequent pregnancies. If the previous birth was before the 28th week of pregnancy, she’s 10 times more likely to go into labor prematurely. Women who’ve had multiple miscarriages or abortions or complicated pregnancies are also at risk.
Family history also plays a role. If the pregnant woman’s mother or sister had a premature delivery, she’s got a slightly higher chance of going through the same.
3. Physiological Problems
There are many factors relating the the body’s organs that make a woman more likely to go into labor prematurely. It could be a problem with the uterus, placenta or cervix.
A weak or insufficient cervix or a short cervix may open up earlier than required, leading to premature labor. A placenta in an abnormal position or which separates from the uterus early can also lead to premature birth. If the sac surrounding the fetus breaks, the mother can go into premature labor.
4. Carrying Multiples
Many premature births involve multiple babies, like twins or triplets. Fifty percent of twins are born at or before 36 weeks while fifty percent of triplets are born before 32 weeks. In short, the more babies in the uterus, the earlier the birth. The reason for this is that with multiple babies, the uterus becomes over-distended, leading to premature labor.
An infection is an important cause of premature birth. It could be any kind of infection – gum disease, urinary tract infection, vaginal infections or an infection of the amniotic membrane. This is why mothers-to-be are routinely screened for infections which can almost double the risk of a premature birth.
6. Pregnancy-related Factors
It has been seen that mothers who conceive via methods like in vitro fertilization tend to have a greater chance of a premature birth. Another factor that comes into play is the gap between pregnancies. If a woman gets pregnant in less than six months after delivering a baby, she’s likely to have a premature birth this time round. Nutrition before and during pregnancy can also impact the timing of the baby’s birth.
7. Smoking, Alcohol or Drug Abuse
It is well known that drinking or smoking during pregnancy can result in a low birth weight or other health issues in the baby, but it is also a cause for premature births. And it’s not just smoking – any kind of tobacco usage can result in a preterm birth. This is because nicotine in the tobacco causes the blood vessels in the uterus to constrict, resulting in preterm labor.
8. Physical and Emotional Trauma
Severe emotional trauma like death, loss or divorce can take a toll on a woman’s body and can trigger a premature birth. Physical injury or domestic violence has also been shown to increase the chances of a woman going into labor prematurely.
9. Age and Ethnicity
Age plays a role in many aspects of pregnancy and childbirth, and this includes delivering prematurely. A pregnant woman younger than 17 or older than 35 are more at risk of delivering a premature baby than women in the 17-34 age group. African American women are also more vulnerable to premature labor than other ethnicities, although the reason is not known.
10. Medical Indications
While most cases of premature births happen spontaneously as the mother goes into labor without medical intervention, sometimes the doctors may decide on intentionally delivering the baby early. This is done when there is some medical indication that the health of the baby or mother may be at risk. Such conditions include pre-eclampsia, placental abruption, fetal distress or if the baby is not growing properly due to some problem in the womb.
Tips to Prevent Preterm Births
The WHO states that, “Preventing deaths and complications from preterm birth starts with a healthy pregnancy.” Some of the causes of premature births show us that to an extent, we can lower the chances of premature births with simple steps from our end.
- Find out your risk – this is the first thing to do even before you plan to get pregnant
- If you have any health conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure, try to get it controlled before pregnancy
- Get yourself at a healthy weight before pregnancy, since losing weight while pregnant is not recommended
- Quit smoking well before trying to get pregnant so the body has a chance to get rid of all the toxic substances
- Eat a balanced diet and take all the recommended prenatal vitamins, like folic acid
- Abstain from alcohol completely
- If you’ve just had a baby, wait at least 12 months before getting pregnant again
- Learn to deal with stress through meditation, rest and therapy
- Stay away from sick people and crowded places to avoid catching an infection
- Those who have a high premature birth risk may be advised to avoid intercourse
There are many ways doctors can assess a woman’s risk for premature labor. It can be through ultrasound, a cervical or vaginal examination or testing the amniotic fluid. The doctor may also test for Fetal fibronectin, a protein that makes the amniotic sac stick to the uterus. If this protein is disturbed, it can leak into the vagina and cause early labor.
There are a few treatments that doctors will decide upon depending upon the possible cause for premature labor. Abnormalities of the uterus or cervix can be corrected with surgery either before or during pregnancy. Doctors may also prescribe progesterone supplements, which can help reduce the risk of a preterm birth.