Premature birth is an issue that affects families all around the world. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 15 million babies are born preterm each year (before 37 weeks of gestation). Globally, the rate of preterm birth ranges from 5-18 percent, and in the United States alone, approximately 1 in 10 babies are born too early.1,2
While the entire month of November is dedicated to global prematurity awareness, making sure that women and their families have accurate information on preterm birth is critical year-round. With all of the conflicting information and opinions that exist on pregnancy and preterm birth, it's understandable for anyone to feel misguided when it comes to the consequences of not carrying a baby to full term. Read below to find out what some common misunderstandings are and how you can help to correct them.
1. My baby was preterm, but she was healthy because she didn't require a stay in the NICU.
Babies born preterm do not always require care in the NICU, but that does not mean they are as developed as a baby born full term (39-40 weeks gestation). What some people may not realize is that whether the baby needs to go to the NICU or not, preterm birth, and even late preterm birth (between 34-36 weeks) can be associated with both short and long-term health risks and developmental issues. Bringing pregnancy to full term gives babies their best chance at having the time they need to meet all of their important developmental milestones.3-5
2. Preterm birth can happen to anyone, so there's nothing I can do to reduce my risk.
Recognizing the risk factors of preterm birth is the first step for mothers to understand what may increase their likelihood of having their baby preterm. And, while it's true that preterm birth can happen to anyone, one of the leading risk factors is having delivered a baby preterm in a prior pregnancy. By knowing what may increase their risk, moms-to-be can be proactive to discuss with their doctor their risk factors and to understand what they may be able to do to help reduce their risk. You can access a risk factors checklist here.3,4,6
3. My baby was only born a few weeks early and he's doing just fine, so late preterm is no big deal.
Every week inside the womb is essential, because during the final weeks of pregnancy, the baby is still reaching key developmental milestones. Even late preterm babies can experience health issues associated with preterm birth later in life. Some babies born late preterm may experience issues with temperature regulation due to low birth weight and jaundice — which may not become apparent until after leaving the hospital. Staying pregnant full term is one of the best ways to provide your baby with a healthy start in life.7-9
4. My baby was born preterm, but was a healthy weight so it's okay.
A healthy birth weight is always a good sign, but while some preterm babies may look the same on the outside as full term babies, there is significant internal growth that occurs in the final weeks of pregnancy that is not as visible as weight. For example, a baby born preterm hasn't had the chance for their brain to fully develop, and as a result may have a harder time in school. They are more likely to have learning and behavior problems throughout childhood. Preterm babies may also have trouble breathing because their lungs continue to develop until the very end of pregnancy. Although the lungs usually get better with time, asthma-like symptoms may occur throughout life.7-10
With the right knowledge, we all can help to address preterm birth and educate others on the risk factors and developmental impacts. If you think you may be at risk for preterm birth, talk with your healthcare provider about your individual situation. You can also find more information on preterm birth, risk factors and developmental milestones by visiting www.growthyoucantsee.com.
1. WHO. "Preterm Birth" Available at: http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/preterm-birth Feb. 2018. 2. US Department of Health and Human Services. "Births in the United States, 2017." No. 318. August 2018. 3. March of Dimes. Preterm labor and birth. Available at: http://www.marchofdimes.org/pregnancy/preterm-labor-and-premature-birth.aspx. October 2014. 4. American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Preterm labor. Available at: http://www.acog.org/~/media/For%20Patients/faq087.pdf?dmc=1&ts=20130207T1252359850. November 2016. 5. American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology. "Definition of Term Pregnancy" Available at: https://www.acog.org/Clinical-Guidance-and-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Obstetric-Practice/Definition-of-Term-Pregnancy November 2017. 6. March of Dimes. "Preterm Labor And Premature Birth: Are You At Risk?" Available at: https://www.marchofdimes.org/complications/preterm-labor-and-premature-birth-are-you-at-risk.aspx October 2018. 7. March of Dimes. "Long-Term Health Effects of Premature Birth." Available at: https://www.marchofdimes.org/complications/long-term-health-effects-of-premature-birth.aspx October 2016. 8. Engle WA, Tomashek KM, Wallman C. Late-preterm infants: a population at risk. Pediatrics. 2007;120:1390-1401. 9. Whyte, RK et al. Safe Discharge of the late preterm infant. Paediatric Child Health. 2010 Dec; 15(10): 655–660. 10. CDC.org "Preterm Birth" Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternalinfanthealth/pretermbirth.htm April 2018.