When a baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy, it’s considered a premature birth. The earlier the birth, the more serious the health risks to the baby. Preterm infants need careful monitoring and special care to help them grow and develop outside of the uterus.
A preterm, premature or "preemie" baby is a baby born too early, or about three weeks before the due date. A normal pregnancy period (fetal development) is about 40 weeks. Preterm birth occurs at 37 weeks or earlier. This premature or early birth can pose serious health risks to the mother and baby.
About 1 out of every 10 births in the U.S. is premature. The number increases in lower-income countries. Complications from premature births are the leading cause of death in children younger than 5.
Preterm births fall into four categories:
A fetus needs a full term in the uterus to develop. If they are born too early, they may not completely develop. This can cause serious health problems. Preemie babies tend to have heart, brain, lung or liver issues.
Some of the most common health conditions that affect premature babies are:
Premature babies are also at a higher risk of developmental challenges. They may have health issues later in life, including:
A baby born prematurely can have a huge emotional impact on the entire family. People who go into preterm labor are more likely to have:
Premature births can happen suddenly, with no known cause. Sometimes providers have to induce (start) labor early for medical reasons. People can also go into premature labor due to:
You may be at an increased risk for premature birth if you:
If you’re at a high risk of preterm labor or birth, you may be a candidate for cervical cerclage. This surgical procedure uses a single stitch to close your cervix until your baby is born.
Preterm infants often need specialized medical care in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). This is a specific part of the hospital for babies in critical condition. Neonatologists are healthcare providers who specialize in newborn care. Some babies stay in the NICU for weeks or months.
Preterm infants often need help with:
Sometimes preterm labor stops and doesn’t result in birth. Labor may stop on its own, or with the right treatments.
If you go into preterm labor, your healthcare provider may recommend certain medications to stop or delay labor. If those medications don’t work, other medications may help prepare the baby for birth and prevent some complications.
There is no single way to prevent premature birth, but you can take steps to reduce your risk of premature labor:
Contact your healthcare provider immediately if you notice any of the following signs of preterm labor:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Premature birth can create serious health concerns for a baby. When an infant doesn’t have enough time to develop in the uterus, important organs may not develop fully. However, advances in newborn care are helping many preterm infants grow into healthy, robust children. Staying healthy throughout your pregnancy is the best way to prevent premature labor or birth.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/15/2021.
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