Understanding Preterm Birth

Pregnancy | | Natasha Weiss
4 min read

Pregnancy and birth are full of unexpected ups and downs. Although it’s something all mammals go through in one way or another, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what’s actually going on in a pregnant or birthing body.

One thing that’s on the mind of a lot of pregnant people is when they will give birth, and what the potential risks are if they happen to have their baby (or babies) before they are due. According to the World Health Organization, more than 1 in 10 babies are born too early every year. 

While a lot of things are out of your control, education is the first step you can take toward being proactive about your pregnancy and your birth. It’s time to expand your pregnancy knowledge by learning about preterm birth.

What Is a Preterm Birth?

There’s often confusion about what exactly a preterm birth is. Preterm birth is when a baby is born before 37 weeks gestation, or before the end of term. 

This can be broken down further into:

  • Less than 28 weeks: Extremely preterm
  • 28-32 weeks: Very preterm
  • 32-37 weeks: Moderate to late preterm

These guidelines may vary depending on the country, but this is the general consensus from the WHO.

Complications of a Preterm Birth

Many preterm babies go on without any issues, especially those born into families with access to proper medical care and resources.

Complications from preterm birth are the leading cause of death among children aged 5 and under. It’s estimated that 75% of these deaths could be prevented with access to proper medical care and interventions.

These are the most common complications for babies born preterm:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Visual and hearing problems
  • Breathing problems 
  • Underdeveloped lungs (bronchopulmonary dysplasia)
  • Neonatal sepsis (blood infection)
  • Intraventricular hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain)
  • Abnormal blood flow in the heart (patent ductus arteriosus) 
  • Issues with digestion
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Poor growth

Complications for babies who are born preterm may be minimized with skin-to-skin contact, lactation or feeding support, and medical care for infections, or breathing difficulties.

Risk Factors for a Preterm Birth

It’s not always known what causes preterm birth, but some factors can increase someone’s risk.

  • Smoking tobacco
  • Drinking alcohol or substance abuse
  • Pregnant with multiples
  • Less than 18 months between pregnancies
  • Health complications with the pregnant person like preeclampsia
  • IVF treatment

Minimize Your Risk

Unfortunately, many of the complications that occur from preterm births happen in areas where people don’t have access to proper medical care or don’t have the resources to pay for it. The conversation around reproductive justice is huge and plays a big role in preterm birth.

That being said, there are steps you can take to help minimize your risk of preterm birth and the potential complications that can come with it. 

Take care of your growing body

We can’t say it enough that most complications in pregnancy and birth are out of your control, but there are steps you can take to help minimize your risk by taking care of your pregnant body:

  • Eating a balanced diet full of whole foods
  • Getting physical activity if your body allows – gentle yoga is a great option
  • Taking prenatal vitamins
  • Managing stress levels as best as you can
  • Getting enough rest (we know this can be a lot easier said than done)

No matter how you take care of your body during pregnancy, know that having a baby preterm is not your fault. While there are big steps you can take to prevent preterm birth from happening like not smoking or drinking alcohol during pregnancy, a lot of things are more nuanced, and not something you should feel responsible for or ashamed of.

Know your options

It doesn’t always feel like it when you’re navigating reproductive healthcare, but you have autonomy over your body, your medical care, your pregnancy, and your birth. Knowing your options means understanding what’s going on with your pregnant body, what different medical terms in birth mean, what’s necessary in terms of medical care, and what’s not.

It can feel overwhelming to figure all this out. That’s why it can be incredibly helpful to go to childbirth education classes and build your support system.

Build your support system

You’re not an island, and you shouldn’t have to do this on your own. Having a support system can help lower your stress levels, help you better understand your options, and not feel isolated in your experience.

Your support system may include:

  • Your partner if you have one
  • Your family or chosen family
  • Your friends and loved ones
  • A doula
  • Pregnancy support groups (in person or online)

Your Body, Your Birth

If you’re experiencing anxiety or uncertainty during your pregnancy, this is totally understandable. Especially if you have experienced difficulties with fertility before. Unknowns can be scary, but remember that this is your body, your baby, and your birth.

We know the impact that having a baby born prematurely can have on your mental health. If this is you, please lean on the resources and support system you have like the ones mentioned above, and any social workers or mental health practitioners that the hospital makes available to you. 

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