Throughout your pregnancy, your baby goes through incredible development from conception to birth. They develop everything they need to survive, including organs, limbs, a head, fingernails, eyelashes and so much more.
Normally, this process takes 40 weeks, which is considered a full-term pregnancy. Sometimes, babies are born too early. This is called preterm birth, when babies are born before 37 weeks of pregnancy.
Roughly one in every 10 births in the US is preterm. There are also racial differences in preterm births, and the rate among Black babies is roughly 50% higher compared to white or Hispanic babies.
Preterm births can cause a wide range of problems for your baby. "During those final weeks of pregnancy, your baby's brains, lungs and liver are still developing — all of which are crucial to their survival once they're born," says Elizabeth Andes, MD, FACOG, a gynecologist at Main Line Health. "Preterm babies might experience problems with breathing, feeding, seeing, hearing or overall development. Having a preterm birth can also take an emotional and financial toll on families."
Babies who are born preterm may also need extra care and time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to continue growing.
There are many causes of preterm birth, and the exact reason a baby is born preterm may not be completely clear. Still, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of preterm birth and promote a healthy pregnancy.
1. Don't smoke.
Smoking isn't just bad for your health — it's damaging to the development of your baby, too. Not only can smoking lead to preterm birth, but it can also lead to miscarriage and low birth weight.
Smoking during pregnancy can cause tissue damage in your baby, especially in the lungs and brain. It can also keep your baby from getting the oxygen he/she needs. The effects of smoking extend into infanthood, as it can make babies more likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Quitting smoking is the best way to keep your baby healthy. For help quitting, Main Line Health's Tobacco Dependency Treatment Program offers free one-on-one sessions to help you quit and avoid relapsing.
2. Steer clear of alcohol and drugs.
Alcohol and drugs can also have negative impacts on your baby's development and cause preterm birth.
"Because your blood passes straight through the umbilical cord to your baby, there is no known amount of alcohol that's safe to drink while pregnant," says Dr. Andes. "Excessive drinking has also been connected to development problems in the brain, miscarriage, stillbirth and developmental disabilities."
Illegal drugs can cause similar problems. In addition to preterm birth, drugs can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects, withdrawal symptoms in the baby after birth, an increased risk of SIDS, poor growth in the womb and cognitive and behavioral problems.
Avoiding alcohol and drugs completely is the only sure way to make sure your baby doesn't experience the negative effects of these substances.
3. Keep up with prenatal care.
Prenatal care — or the health care you get while pregnant — is key to the health of you and your baby throughout pregnancy. By seeing your obstetrician/gynecologist (OB/GYN) as soon as you find out you're pregnant and regularly during your pregnancy, they can address any concerns early. This allows them to treat them quickly and prevent complications or conditions down the road.
Your OB/GYN can also help you understand other ways to set your baby up for a healthy life. For instance, they can discuss taking a prenatal vitamin each day, keeping a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy sleep schedule and managing stress.
4. Tell your health care provider if you have any signs of preterm labor.
If you have symptoms of preterm labor, it's important to get evaluated by your health care provider. They can get you the care you need as soon as possible.
Signs of preterm labor can occur between 20 and 36 weeks of pregnancy and include:
- Contractions (when your stomach muscles tighten) that occur every 10 minutes or more frequently
- Pressure in the pelvic or hip area
- Dull, low backache
- Change in vaginal discharge, such as bleeding or leaking fluid
- Cramps, similar to menstrual cramps
- Abdominal cramps (sometimes accompanied by diarrhea)
5. Talk to your health care provider about progesterone treatment if you've previously had a preterm birth.
Vaginal progesterone treatment may help patients who have experienced a preterm birth. It can replace the natural progesterone (a hormone that plays a role in reproduction) that some women lack.
How effective this treatment can be depends on your individual circumstances. Talk to your OB/GYN to see if progesterone treatment might be right for you.
Taking steps now for your baby's future health
The risk of preterm birth is even higher for underserved women, particularly those from marginalized communities who often face systemic barriers to accessing healthcare services. In the United States, for instance, black women are nearly twice as likely to deliver preterm as compared to white women. The reasons for these disparities are complex, but often include social determinants of health including poverty, limited access to healthy food and safe housing and stress due to racism and discrimination.
Having access to quality prenatal care is critical in preventing preterm birth and improving maternal and child health outcomes. Prenatal care provides pregnant women with regular check-ups, screenings and education on healthy behaviors during pregnancy.
The time your baby spends growing in the womb is crucial to their current and future growth and development. By taking preventative measures to keep you and your baby healthy, you're setting both of you up for a successful birth and supporting your child's future health down the road.
With healthy lifestyle choices and regular prenatal check-ups, you can be sure you're doing your best to have a healthy pregnancy and birth.
Make an appointment with Elizabeth Andes, MD, FACOG
Learn more about Obstetrics/Gynecology and Maternity Care at Main Line Health
Choosing the right OB/GYN for a lifetime of care