Most women expect to give birth to a full-term baby. But sometimes delivery occurs sooner than expected. More than 12 percent of babies in this country are born prematurely -- before 37 weeks' gestation -- and the number of premature births is rising. In fact, it has risen 29 percent since 1981.
Though the causes of prematurity aren't yet fully understood, the latest research suggests that many cases may be triggered by certain bacterial infections and preexisting conditions during pregnancy. While children born before 32 weeks face the highest risk of complications, all premature babies have a risk of developing health problems, such as breathing difficulties, and even learning disabilities. Fortunately, babies born after 35 weeks may suffer few effects.
So how can you reduce your risk? Strive to maintain a healthy lifestyle and attend all prenatal checkups. Knowing what to expect will help ensure that both you and baby get the care you need quickly.
While the majority of premature births result from unexpected, spontaneous preterm labor (often following premature rupture of the membranes), 20 percent are early inductions due to pregnancy complications such as vaginal bleeding; uterine abnormalities; as well as health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and urinary tract infections. In such cases, early delivery may be the safest route for mother and baby. Fortunately, with proper prenatal care, many of these conditions can be treated early on in pregnancy.
New studies also suggest that some cases may be caused by the body's natural response to certain bacterial infections, including those involving amniotic fluid and the tissue surrounding it. Because many of these conditions are often symptomless, they are difficult to prevent and diagnose in pregnancy.