Like Darcy Milder, many parents of preemies wonder what prompted their child's early arrival. "I thought having a premature baby was something that happened to people who smoked or drank, or who didn't get prenatal care," says Milder. "Whereas I was young and healthy, and I did everything by the book."
According to the March of Dimes, 25 percent of the time, there's a problem (such as preeclampsia, a condition marked by high blood pressure, swelling, and increased protein in the mother's urine) that indicates that the baby has to be delivered early for his own or the mother's well-being. But about 75 percent of preterm births occur spontaneously, and in nearly half of these cases, doctors don't know why it happens.
However, there are risk factors for early labor: carrying twins or more kids, a history of preterm delivery, or some uterine or cervical abnormalities. Additionally, moms who are obese or who have high blood pressure, diabetes, or other chronic health problems may be at increased risk for preterm delivery. Some infections, as well as smoking, drinking, and drugs, have also been linked to prematurity.
A recent March of Dimes study also points to increasing rates of cesareans and inductions as a factor in the rise of babies born between 34 and 36 weeks.
Because preterm babies enter the world without the benefit of a full 40 weeks to develop safely inside their mother, they're vulnerable to a range of complications. Some are lucky enough to be relatively healthy, while others battle many serious problems, such as heart conditions, bleeding in the brain, compromised kidney function, jaundice, and anemia. Additionally, because they have immature immune systems, preemies are especially susceptible to infection.
The earlier a baby is born, the smaller and less developed she'll be and the higher her risk for complications. Babies born before 32 weeks face the greatest risk of death and long-term disabilities such as mental retardation, cerebral palsy, lung and gastrointestinal problems, and vision and hearing loss. The good news: More than 98 percent of babies born between 32 to 35 weeks survive.