Premature birth, also known as preterm birth, occurs in roughly 12% of women in the United States. While the rate is steadily decreasing in many states, it has risen in several others. Overall, however, medical science has improved so dramatically over the years, that with proper prenatal care many of these early deliveries can be avoided.
Cherokee Women’s Health Specialists, in collaboration with Northside Hospital Cherokee, are experts in women’s OB/GYN healthcare. Our accessibility to Northside’s state-of-the-art facility with its up-to-date Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) has already dramatically improved the lives of countless prematurely born infants.
What is Considered a Premature or Preterm Birth?
The arrival of any baby born before 37 weeks is regarded as a premature birth. An average pregnancy is 280 days. This gestational period is calculated from the first day of your last menstrual period, and is referred to as ‘the estimated day of confinement’ or EDC. Some babies make their entrance early.
The earlier the delivery, the more the infant’s chance of survival declines, yet babies born as early as 23 weeks and weighing just one pound, one ounce have been successfully saved.
Dr. Britton Crigler discusses caring for premature babies at the new Northside Hospital Cherokee NICU unit.
What Are the Risks of a Premature Birth?
While your baby is growing, so are his or her organs, such as brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, heart, etc. Bones, muscles, nerves, and tissue are also forming. Senses are becoming more acute with every passing day spent safely in utero. Full gestational time for everything to develop and function properly is vital before your child can be exposed to the world outside your womb.
An underdeveloped fetus faces many health challenges, both at birth and later in life — many of them chronically severe. These are some of the complications that may arise:
- Hearing deficiencies
- Visual impairments
- Cerebral Palsy
- Learning and intellectual delays
- Breathing issues such as respiratory distress syndrome or apnea
- Jaundice from underdeveloped liver
- Dental problems
- Psychological concerns
- Behavioral difficulties
- Brain bleeds (Intraventricular hemorrhage)
- Heart malformations and malfunctions
- Intestinal and feeding problems
- Infections due to vulnerable immune systems
What Causes Premature Birth?
In many cases, the cause is unknown. Often, perfectly healthy women whose pregnancies progress without any problems go into early labor for no known reason. We know, however, that there are certain risk factors which can make women more susceptible to premature labor and birth.
What Are These Risk Factors?
Certain conditions, disorders, and lifestyles can lead to premature birth. These include:
- Obesity and being underweight
- Vaginal infections
- Women carrying more than one baby
- Severe psychological or emotional stress
- Jobs or other obligations that may require standing for prolonged hours
- Heavy lifting
- Exposure to secondhand smoke
- Abuse of alcohol
- Illegal or prescribed drug abuse
- Inadequate or no prenatal care
- Cervix, uterus, or urinary tract problems
- Previous miscarriages or premature births
- High blood pressure
- Eating disorders
- Genetic or autoimmune connective tissue disorders
- Family history of premature birth
- Sexually transmitted diseases or infections
- Blood irregularities
- Back-to-back pregnancies
- Vaginal bleeding
- Exposure to toxins
- Liver conditions
- Kidney disease
- Isolation or lack of emotional support
- Multiple abortions done previously in first or second trimester
- Pregnancy occurring as a result of fertility treatments
- Lack of proper and regular prenatal care
- Early rupture of the amniotic sac
- Improper fetal development or conditions such as spina bifida, Down syndrome, heart and birth defects, etc. discovered through prenatal testing.
- Domestic violence, sexual, or other abuse
- Low income, which in turn can inhibit proper prenatal care
- Teenage pregnancy under 17 years of age
- Pregnancy occurring after 35 years of age
- Race: For unknown reasons, premature birth arises more often in babies born to mothers of African-American, Hispanic, Alaska Native, and Native American Indian origin.
I’m Having a Trouble-Free Pregnancy with No Risk Factors. Is it Okay to Induce Labor and Have my Baby Earlier Than 40 Weeks?
Unless your doctor deems having your baby earlier than 39 weeks for a sound medical reason necessary, it’s not a good idea to induce labor, even if you know you’re going to need a Caesarean section. In some cases, induction is necessary. Some of these reasons are:
- Infection of the uterus
- Loss or lack of amniotic fluid
- Improper fetal growth
- High blood pressure threatening mother’s or baby’s health
- Rh blood problem
- Separation of the placenta from the uterus
What Are Symptoms of Premature Birth?
If you have not reached your full gestational 40 weeks, you should call your doctor if you experience the following signs:
- Your water has broken
- The sensation of your baby bearing down or pushing in your pelvic or lower belly area
- More than regular vaginal discharge, or discharge that looks mucousy, bloody or watery
- Unrelenting dull pain in your lower back
- Numerous tightening stomach contractions, either regular or irregular
- Stomach cramps unaccompanied by diarrhea or loose stool
Can a Premature Birth be Stopped?
If you are considered high-risk for premature birth, careful monitoring throughout your pregnancy, prescribed bed rest, and possibly medication may be recommended to avoid early delivery. If premature labor still begins despite all efforts, the process usually cannot be reversed for long, so focus is put upon protecting both you and your baby from as many complications as possible, beginning with proximity to a Neo-natal intensive care unit (NICU). Medication may be given both to slow down contractions and to accelerate development of the fetal lungs, which is often the most immediate and pressing premature birth problem.
If you are experiencing preeclampsia, additional drugs may also be used to avoid seizures, and to prevent the possibility of cerebral palsy, other brain disorders, heart problems, and/or lung issues in your baby.
What Else Can I Do to Lower My Risk of Having a Premature Birth?
Whether you are at risk or not, there are always these steps you can take to make the experience an easier and safer one for both you and your baby:
- If you are planning to get pregnant in the near future, try to get to or maintain a healthy weight, and get as fit physically as possible.
- When you become pregnant, schedule your fist prenatal visit immediately, along with additional and regular follow-ups.
- Provide your doctor with a full, honest medical history, including any information you have regarding past family disorders, conditions, and diseases. List any medical problems you have and all medications, vitamins, and supplements you are taking.
- Quit smoking, avoid alcohol, and stay away from all social and illegal drugs.
- If you already have children, wait at least 18 months before becoming pregnant again.
- Decrease any major stresses in your life. If you suffer from emotional or psychological problems, discuss these with your doctor and get treatment before becoming pregnant.
- Lower chances of infection and diseases by discussing any possible vaccinations you may need before becoming pregnant.
- If you are over 35, make sure your OB/GYN is current and knowledgeable on the special needs and possible risks of pregnancy in women your age.
Why Choose Cherokee Women’s Health Specialists?
Our broad-based practice of highly trained professionals is knowledgeable in every aspect of women’s health, including high-risk pregnancies and premature births. Our facility consists of not only obstetricians, gynecologists, midwives, surgeons, nutritionists, medical assistants, nurses, and experts in holistic medicine, but we have three board–certified urogynecologists who are doubly-accredited in OB/GYN and Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery (FPMRS). This enviable certification, and the rigid training and expertise needed to obtain it, enables these specialists to diagnose and treat any and all medical conditions unique to women. Additionally, our unlimited access to the cutting edge NICU unit at Northside Hospital Cherokee allows us to provide you with as safe and comfortable a pregnancy and subsequent birthing process as possible.
For additional information on premature births or to book an appointment, call 770.720.7733.