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Premature Birth: Definition, Causes, and Prevention

Medically reviewed by Mary Rani Cadiz, MD · Obstetrics and Gynecology

Written by Jan Alwyn Batara · Updated May 27, 2021

Premature Birth: Definition, Causes, and Prevention

One of the biggest fears that pregnant women have is premature birth. This is because of the possible short-term as well as long-term effects it can have on a baby.

Read on to learn more about premature birth, what causes it, and what you can do to lower your risk.

What is premature birth?

Most mothers give birth to their babies at around 40 weeks of being pregnant. Though, women can also give birth to healthy babies as early as 37 weeks. This is because at 37 weeks, the baby is already full-term.

Being full-term means that the baby is fully developed and it also means that the baby would be less prone to complications and other symptoms of premature birth.

Birth that happens before the 37th week of pregnancy is a premature birth.  This type of birth is called premature because the baby is not yet fully developed.

What this means is that premature babies tend to be smaller than their full-term counterparts, and are also more prone to complications.

Here are some of the possible complications that premature babies can have:

  • Breathing problems such as bronchopulmonary dysplasia and respiratory distress syndrome
  • Neonatal sepsis, or infections
  • Intraventricular hemorrhage or bleeding in the brain
  • Jaundice
  • Retinopathy of prematurity, a disease caused by undeveloped retinas
  • Because of these complications, and many others, having a premature birth is not ideal. Hospitals also place premature babies in the NICU or neonatal intensive care unit so that they can be given more special care.

    These days, medical science has advanced to the point that most hospitals can provide the right care for premature babies. However, this doesn’t mean that premature birth is not risky, as it can still lead to serious complications.

    What are the risk factors?

    A number of things can be responsible for a premature birth. Here are some possible risk factors:

    • Multiple pregnancies such as twins or triplets
    • Preexisting conditions such as diabetes
    • Genetics
    • Giving birth at a very young age
    • Infection
    • Poor nutrition

    In some cases, a premature birth might actually be planned by a doctor. This can happen if either the mother or the baby has a life-threatening or very serious health problem, and the only solution would be to plan a preterm birth. This accounts for about 25% of cases.

    Are there any symptoms to watch out for?

    While a premature birth can’t always be detected, there are some possible symptoms that appear before 37 weeks of pregnancy.

    Here are some symptoms of preterm birth to watch out for:

    • Increase in pressure inside the vagina or rectum
    • Sudden increase in discharge coming from the vagina
    • Losing your mucus plug
    • Consistent pain coming from your abdomen or your lower back
    • Contractions that are long and frequent

    If you experience any of these symptoms before your due date, it would be ideal to talk to your doctor as soon as possible.

    Week 37 of Pregnancy: All You Need to Know

    How can it be prevented?

    There is no way of completely preventing the possibility of a preterm birth. However, there are some things that you can do in order to lower the chances of it happening.

    Here are some important things to remember:

  • Make sure to visit your doctor often for your prenatal check-ups
  • Eat healthy foods during your pregnancy
  • If you are a smoker or you drink alcohol, it would be best to avoid these habits while you’re pregnant
  • Progesterone supplements can help, if your doctor prescribes it
  • A surgery called cervical cerclage can be done by a doctor. This helps provide extra support to the uterus especially for women with a short cervix detected in the early part of pregnancy
  • Avoid straining
  • Key Takeaways

    Premature birth should be avoided as much as possible, as it can cause both short-term and long-term complications for newborn babies. By staying on top of your monthly visits to your doctor, and staying healthy while pregnant, you can lower the risk of premature birth.

    Despite this, it is important to know that if it does happen, your doctor will do their best in order to provide the best care possible for your newborn baby.

    Learn more about Giving Birth and Complications here.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Mary Rani Cadiz, MD

    Obstetrics and Gynecology

    Written by Jan Alwyn Batara · Updated May 27, 2021

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