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Dangers of Premature Birth

A premature birth is a birth that occurs between 20 and 37 weeks of pregnancy. Most babies are born around the 40th week of pregnancy.

Even with medical advances, premature birth remains a serious threat to the health of babies around the globe. Worldwide, premature birth is the leading cause of death in children under 5 years of age.

Unfortunately, rates of premature birth have been rising in the United States, where today almost 10 percent of births are premature.

In Childbirth Graphics’ Facts About Preterm Labor Newsletter, we examined several factors that can increase the risk for preterm labor and premature birth. This month, we are taking a closer look at some of the possible complications of premature birth. Read on to learn more about potential health problems associated with premature birth as well as just a few of our many educational resources that are ideal to teach about pregnancy and caution signs to report to a healthcare professional.

What Are Possible Complications of Premature Birth?

Premature babies are more likely than full-term infants to develop a number of serious health problems. In general, the more premature a baby is, the greater the baby’s risk for health complications.

Also available in tear pad format, our Timeline of Pregnancy
emphasizes that every day and week of pregnancy counts.

Possible complications of premature birth include:

  • Breathing Problems—Many premature babies suffer from respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) because their lungs don’t produce enough surfactant, a substance that helps their lungs expand. In addition to needing breathing assistance, premature babies with breathing problems often require careful monitoring because they can stop breathing for 20 seconds or longer. Some babies may develop chronic lung damage resembling asthma.

  • Jaundice—Because their immature livers can’t remove a waste product called bilirubin from the blood, premature babies are more likely to develop jaundice, a yellowish discoloration of the skin and eyes. High bilirubin levels can cause brain damage.

  • Anemia—Anemia is a condition that results from a lack of red blood cells. Premature babies have a higher risk of developing anemia because they haven’t had time to store enough iron. Anemia can cause feeding problems, slow down growth, and contribute to other health concerns.

  • Infection—Because their immune systems are immature, premature babies are particularly vulnerable to infection. Serious and potentially life-threatening infects that premature babies may develop include sepsis (blood infection), pneumonia (lung infection), and meningitis (infection of the fluid and linings of the brain and spinal cord).

Our Signs of Preterm Labor Tear Pad provides valuable
take-home information on preterm labor warning signs.

  • Bleeding in the brain—The smallest and most premature babies are at highest risk for bleeding in the brain. Severe cases can result in long-term behavioral and learning problems. Intellectual disabilities and cerebral palsy—a condition that affects motor skills and muscle movement—can occur.

  • Heart problems—In full-term babies, the ductus arteriosus, an artery that allows blood to flow to the lungs and acquire oxygen, normally closes soon after birth. Many premature babies, however, develop patent ductus arteriosus (PDA), which occurs when the artery fails to close. Medication or heart surgery may be necessary.

  • Intestinal problems—Some premature babies develop a serious intestinal problem called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a condition that can cause abdominal tenderness, feeding problems, and other complications. Surgery may be required to remove damaged portions of the intestines.

  • Vision problems—Premature babies may develop retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). Eye damage may occur because of an abnormal growth of blood vessels. Although some babies suffer only mild vision loss, blindness can also result.

  • Hearing problems—Premature babies are at risk for hearing loss and deafness. Babies who use breathing machines for long periods or who develop certain infections are at higher risk.

What Can I Do to Help Protect My Baby?

Although premature birth cannot always be prevented, there are steps an expectant mom can take to help reduce her risk of preterm labor and birth:

  • Take care of yourself both before you plan a pregnancy and while you are pregnant. Maintain a healthy weight before becoming pregnant, and avoid substance abuse. Eat a healthy diet, get enough folic acid each day, and drink plenty of water.

Our How Fathers Can Support Pregnancy Tear Pad provides tips
for expectant dads to help keep their partners healthy during pregnancy.

  • Get prenatal care throughout your pregnancy, and follow your healthcare professional’s recommendations. Be honest with your healthcare professional if you have a substance abuse problem so that you can receive proper treatment to help protect your baby. For example, if a pregnant woman suddenly stops taking opioids without medical supervision, she may put her baby’s life at risk.

  • Don’t drink alcohol. Consult your healthcare professional before taking any over-the-counter medications or supplements.

  • If you smoke or use e-cigarettes, stop. Nicotine is toxic to developing babies. Stay away from secondhand smoke, too.

  • Reduce and avoid stress.

  • If you feel pain or burning while you urinate, tell your healthcare professional. You may have an infection, which can increase your risk for preterm labor.

  • If you are in an abusive relationship, get help immediately. Put the safety of you and your baby first.

Our Warning Signs During Pregnancy Tear Pad
provides important warning signs to report.

Know the Signs of Preterm Labor

  • Contractions (which may be painful or painless) every 10 minutes or more often

  • Leaking fluid or blood from the vagina

  • Pelvic pressure or the feeling that your baby is pushing down

  • Low, dull backache

  • Abdominal or menstruallike cramping, which may include diarrhea

Contact your healthcare professional immediately if you experience any signs of preterm labor. Your healthcare professional may prescribe medication or bed rest to help prevent your baby’s premature birth.

Learn More

If you have any questions about preterm labor or premature birth, talk to your healthcare professional. Contact your healthcare professional right away if you are pregnant and think you may be experiencing signs of preterm labor.

To learn more about our childbirth education resources that teach about proper prenatal care and factors that can increase the risk for preterm labor and premature birth, please visit our Pregnancy and Pregnancy Hazards product sections.

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