Premature Birth

Overview

What is premature birth?

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.

How common is premature birth?

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.

Are there different levels of prematurity?

Preterm births fall into four categories:

  • Late preterm, born between 34 and 36 weeks.
  • Moderately preterm, born between 32 and 34 weeks.
  • Very preterm, born before 32 weeks.
  • Extremely preterm, born before 25 weeks.

What health problems can a premature baby have?

Babies need a full term in the womb to grow. 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:

  • Cerebral palsy.
  • Hearing and vision problems.
  • Learning disabilities.
  • Poor growth.

What health risks does premature birth pose to the mother?

A baby born prematurely can have a huge emotional impact on the mother and the entire family. Women who go into preterm labor are more likely to have:

Symptoms and Causes

What are the most common causes of premature birth?

Premature births can happen suddenly, with no known cause. Sometimes providers have to induce (start) labor early for medical reasons. Women can also go into premature labor due to:

  • Chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or infections.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Multiple pregnancies, such as twins or triplets.
  • Preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy).
  • Problems with their uterus or cervix.
  • Too little time (less than 18 months) between pregnancies.
  • Vaginal bleeding or infections during pregnancy.

Are some women at a higher risk of premature birth?

You may be at an increased risk for premature birth if you:

  • Are African American.
  • Are under the age of 20 or over the age of 40.
  • Have a family or personal history of preterm births.
  • Smoke while pregnant.
  • Were underweight before getting pregnant.

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.

Management and Treatment

How is prematurity treated?

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:

  • Breathing.
  • Feeding.
  • Gaining weight.
  • Maintaining their own body temperature.

Does preterm labor always cause preterm birth?

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.

Prevention

How can premature birth be prevented?

There is no single way to prevent premature birth, but you can take steps to reduce your risk of premature labor:

  • Avoid tobacco, alcohol or drugs while pregnant.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Get thorough prenatal care throughout your pregnancy.
  • Reduce your stress level.
  • Wait at least 18 months between pregnancies.

Living With

When should you contact your healthcare provider about preterm labor?

Contact your healthcare provider immediately if you notice any of the following signs of preterm labor:

  • Abnormal vaginal discharge (leaking fluid) or bleeding.
  • Contractions or cramping, with or without diarrhea.
  • Ongoing pain in the lower back.
  • Pressure in the pelvis or abdomen.
  • Your “water breaking.”

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Premature birth can create serious health concerns for a baby. When an infant doesn’t have enough time to grow in the womb, 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.

References

  • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. . Accessed 2/26/2021.Preterm Labor and Birth (https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/preterm-labor-and-birth)
  • Carson C, Henderson J, Redshaw M. . BMJ Open. 2016;6(10):e012676. Accessed 2/26/2021. Impact of Preterm Birth on Maternal Well-Being and Women's Perceptions of Their Baby: A Population-Based Survey (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5073632/)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 2/26/2021.Preterm Birth. (https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternalinfanthealth/pretermbirth.htm)
  • March of Dimes. Accessed 2/26/2021.Preterm Labor and Premature Birth. (https://www.marchofdimes.org/complications/preterm-labor-and-premature-baby.aspx)
  • World Health Organization. Accessed 2/26/2021.Preterm Birth. (https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/preterm-birth)

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