What Causes Premature Birth?

According to the CDC, about ten percent of babies were born prematurely in 2020. Let’s look at the causes of this phenomenon, and how to prevent premature births.

What Qualifies as Premature Birth?

According to Mayo Clinic, “A premature birth is a birth that takes place more than three weeks before the baby’s estimated due date. In other words, a premature birth is one that occurs before the start of the 37th week of pregnancy.” They also define more particular preterm stages:

  • Late preterm stage – babies born between 34 and 36 completed weeks of pregnancy
  • Moderately preterm – babies born between 32 and 34 weeks of pregnancy
  • Very preterm stage – babies born at less than 32 weeks of pregnancy
  • Extremely preterm stage -babies born at or before 25 weeks of pregnancy

Complications of Premature Births

Cleveland Clinic describes many health problems that can afflict preemies, including:

  • Apnea of prematurity, or temporary pauses in breathing during sleep.
  • Bronchopulmonary dysplasia, or underdeveloped lungs.
  • Intraventricular hemorrhage, or bleeding in the brain.
  • Necrotizing enterocolitis, or inflammation of the intestines.
  • Neonatal sepsis, or blood infection.
  • Patent ductus arteriosus (PDA), or abnormal blood flow in the heart.
  • Retinopathy of prematurity, or underdeveloped blood vessels in the eye.

They note that preemies are also at a higher risk of developmental challenges later in life, including cerebral palsy, hearing and vision problems, learning disabilities, and poor growth. Mothers of preemies are at elevated risk of anxiety, postpartum depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and problems bonding with their baby.

Who Is At Risk?

Johns Hopkins Medicine lists the following risk factors for premature births:

  1. Having previously given birth prematurely.
  2. Pregnancies with multiples (twins, triplets, et cetera).
  3. Any history of uterus or cervix problems.

Additional risk factors listed by Johns Hopkins include: smoking, infections, and not getting prenatal care. They advise pregnant women to “learn about all the risk factors and talk to your obstetrics provider about what you can do to help reduce your risk for preterm labor.”

Prevention Tactics

The CDC lists several ways to help prevent premature births:

  • Assuring access to health care before and between pregnancies.
  • Identifying women at risk for preterm delivery and offering effective treatments to prevent preterm birth.
  • Preventing unintended pregnancies.
  • Waiting 18 months or more between pregnancies.
  • Choosing single embryo transfer as appropriate when undergoing in-vitro fertilization because pregnancies with multiples has higher risk of preterm delivery.

Additionally, Cleveland Clinic recommends a surgical procedure called cervical cerclage, which uses a single stitch to keep the cervix closed until delivery.

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