What is a Preterm Birth?
Premature birth is a condition when a pregnant woman goes into labor before 37 weeks.
Premature infants are more likely to develop complex health problems, particularly those being born too early. The complications may vary depending on when the baby is born. The earlier your baby is born, the higher the risk of complications.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), premature birth is a global problem, but more than 60% of preterm births occur in Africa and South Asia. In low-income countries, about 12% of babies are born prematurely compared to 9% of high-income countries.
Fortunately, obstetricians have developed many ways to delay premature labor. This helps the baby grow in the uterus for much longer until the due date.
Causes of Preterm Births
There are many factors that may lead to preterm birth. Most premature births occur spontaneously–some of which are caused by early induction of labour or cesarean delivery, either for medical or non-medical reasons.
Below are several factors that can increase the risk of preterm birth, including:
- Smoking habits
- Have another pregnancy too soon after giving birth.
- Not getting proper prenatal care.
- Have a family history of preterm birth.
- Being pregnant with twins or multiples.
- Being pregnant with a baby resulting from in vitro fertilization (IVF).
- Being pregnant with a baby who has certain birth defects.
- Being over or underweight before pregnancy.
- Drinking alcohol or using drugs during pregnancy.
- Have certain medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, preeclampsia, diabetes, infections, or blood clotting disorders.
When to See a Doctor for Preterm Births
After your premature baby is transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), it is possible that he or she may undergo a number of tests, particularly if the NICU staff suspects certain complications. Possible tests may include:
- Breathing and heart rate monitor. The baby’s breath and heart rate will be constantly monitored.
- Fluid input and output. The NICU staff will carefully track how much fluid your baby takes in through feedings and intravenous (IV) fluids, as well as how much fluid your baby loses through the diapers
- Blood tests. Blood samples are taken to monitor a number of critical substances, such as calcium, glucose, and bilirubin levels in your baby’s blood. A blood sample can also be used to measure red blood cell count, check for anemia, and assess for infection.
- Echocardiogram. An ultrasound of the heart to check for problems with your baby’s heart function.
- Ultrasound scan. This is done to check for bleeding or fluid buildup in the brain and check for any digestive tract disorders, including the liver and kidneys.
- Eye exam. An ophthalmologist will examine your baby’s vision to check for any problems with the retina.
Symptoms of Preterm Births
There are two types of symptoms of premature births, mild symptoms and complications. The following are signs and symptoms of preterm birth, including:
- Respiratory problems.
- Fine hair (lanugo) in almost all parts of the body.
- Less rounded features due to a lack of fat stores
- Small size, with a disproportionately large head
- Lack of reflexes to suck and swallow, which causes feeding difficulties.
- Low body temperature due to lack of stored body fat, especially after birth in the delivery room.
Meanwhile, the mother may experience some signs and symptoms below:
- Increase in vaginal discharge (Leucorrhoea)
- Contraction every 10 minutes or so
- Flu-like symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
- Increased pressure in the pelvis or vagina
- Light vaginal bleeding
- Cramps in the lower abdomen that feel like menstrual cramps.
- Back pain, especially in the lower back, is constant or comes and goes but does not go away completely
If you have preterm birth, it is likely that your baby will need to stay longer in the hospital. Depending on how much care your baby needs, your baby may be moved to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
Treatment for Preterm Births
The NICU provides round-the-clock care for premature babies, including:
- Incubators are used to help maintain the baby’s body temperature. The NICU staff may show you how to hold your baby and teach you the skin-to-skin the kangaroo care
- Monitor your baby’s vital organs using sensors attached to your baby’s body. This is done to monitor blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and body temperature. A ventilator may be used to help your baby breathe.
- Using a feeding tube to supply fluids and nutrients. Breast milk may be given through a tube inserted through your baby’s nose.
- Meet the baby’s fluid needs every day, based on the baby’s age and certain medical conditions. The NICU staff will monitor the fluid, sodium, and potassium levels to ensure the baby’s fluid needs are met.
- To treat jaundice, your baby may be placed under a special type of lights called bilirubin lights
- Receive a blood transfusion to increase blood volume, especially if your healthcare provider has taken samples of your baby’s blood for various tests.
Medications may also be given to the baby to stimulate a normal lung and heart function. Sometimes, surgery is required to treat conditions related to prematurity.
Treatment Cost for Preterm Births
Treatment costs for preterm birth vary greatly depending on the medical procedure recommended by the doctor, and the applicable hospital’s policy.
Contact Smarter Health to calculate the estimated cost of preterm birth care.
Prevention of Preterm Births
Although the exact cause of preterm birth is rarely known, there are several things you can do to prevent premature birth, especially for those of you who have a higher risk. Follow these precautions:
- Progesterone supplements. If you have a history of premature birth or a short cervix, both factors that are at risk of causing premature birth can be reduced by progesterone supplementation.
- Cervical cerclage. This is a surgical procedure during pregnancy for women with a short cervix or women who have a history of cervical insufficiency that causes premature birth. This procedure involves a suture (stitch) around the neck of the womb (cervix), aimed to provide mechanical support to the cervix and keep the cervix closed during the pregnancy. The stitches will be removed after you give birth. Consult your obstetrician about what activities to avoid during your pregnancy.
Taking Care Your Baby At Home
Learn how to care for premature babies at home after leaving the hospital by following these ways:
- Understand how to care for a premature baby by taking a baby CPR course.
- Protect your baby’s health, as premature babies are more susceptible to serious infections.
- Continue to monitor for developmental delays and disabilities in the coming months.
- Immunization is recommended for premature babies based on their chronological age, although immunization is often delayed.
- Ask your healthcare team about your baby’s need for supplementation in breast milk or formula. Find out how much and how often your baby should eat.
- Get routine well-child check-up visits as scheduled. Premature babies may need to have checkups every one or two weeks to monitor their growth, treatment progress, and other medical needs.
Have more questions about preterm birth? Write in the comment section below or do a tele-consultation with obstetricians and pediatricians through Smarter Health.
Smarter Health’s free service makes it easier for you to find hospital recommendations at home and abroad.