Preterm Birth: A Real Concern For Pregnant Mothers

1 in 8 babies born in the U.S. is born prematurely.  This can have both short term and long term consequences, and it is important to recognize early if you are at risk. Photo: kaatjevervoort

WASHINGTON, July 3, 2011 — While I may be pregnant with my first child, this is not my first pregnancy.  The first one ended in a miscarriage in the first trimester, and left me, like many women who this has happened to, nervous about the continued healthy development of the child I’m now carrying. 

While the chance of miscarriage drops drastically after the first trimester, the risk of a terminated pregnancy still exists, but changes character.  A loss of a pregnancy before 20 weeks is considered a miscarriage, something the American Pregnancy Association says occurs in 10-25% of all pregnancies.

Image: kaatjevervoort

Image: kaatjevervoort Click to enlarge.

After 20 weeks, many women think they are out of the danger zone for a pregnancy loss, but there is still a risk.  Preterm labor can occur anywhere after 20 weeks and is the birth of any baby prior to 37 because uterine contractions cause the cervix to open earlier than normal.

The World Health Organization says that the rate of preterm birth in developed countries is 5-7%, however, The March of Dimes reports that the rate in the United States is 12%.  To put that in perspective, The CDC says 1 in 8 babies are born prematurely every year in the U.S. and cites premature birth as the leading cause of death among newborns. 

Infants born early typically have low birth weight and underdeveloped organs.

Given advances in medical care and technology, the survival rate for premature infants has increased.  There are charts that list the estimated survivorship for infants born as early as 25 weeks – that’s 12 weeks preterm – all the way up to 36 weeks.   The youngest surviving preterm baby was born in Germany in 2011 at 21 weeks and 5 days, and at first, medical professionals did not expect her to survive.  The Quint Boenker Preemie Survival Foundation places the likelihood of survival of preterm birth at 23 weeks at 17% and 50% for births at 25 weeks.  They say that most babies born at 32 weeks or later will be able to survive with medical assistance.

These may seem like reassuring statistics to women who have lost prior pregnancies, but while the ability for us to save premature infants has greatly increased, our ability to ensure their long-term health has not.  The babies that do survive an early delivery often have problems that continue for the rest of their life, such as breathing problems, digestive problems, developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and vision or hearing loss. 

The Quint Boenker Preemie Survival Foundation says 1 in 10 prematurely born children will develop a permanent disability and 50% of those born before week 26 will be severely disabled.  The WHO cites a study that says in 2005 the U. S. cost in medical treatment, educational expenditure, and production loss due to premature birth was $26.2 billion.

With the numbers telling the story, medical professionals say the best way to reduce the risk of preterm labor is to reduce your risk factors and know the signs of preterm labor so you can seek treatment before it is too late.  High risk groups for preterm labor include women who have had previous preterm births, those are expecting a multiple birth (twins or more), those with uterine or cervix abnormalities, the use of alcohol, illicit drugs or cigarettes during pregnancy, mothers who suffer from an infection during pregnancy, and those who have chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, etc. 

Age can also be a factor, those over 35 or under 17 are at an increased risk.  Complications can arise during pregnancy that can lead to preterm birth, such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetess.

To help reduce your risk, it is important to get routine prenatal care and follow your doctor’s instructions.  Don’t feel silly about calling your doctor’s office if something feels wrong or off to you.  Some of those symptoms may be signs that something could be wrong. It is better to have those misgivings checked out than find out too late that it is a symptom of a greater problem. 

I’ve known multiple women who have delivered their babies preterm, and luckily, most of these infants had made it to the later part of the third trimester.  They all had stays in the NICU; most were on a ventilator.  These children were lucky.  So far none of them are showing any developmental delay or impairment, but with the risk for preterm labor being so high, and the potential consequences being what they are, I find it more and more comforting every week I can check off my calendar that comes with no problems, and I keep my doctor’s phone number on speed dial just in case. 

Follow Brighid on Twitter at @BrighidMoret and receive updates on when new columns post on Facebook. Read more about first time parenting issues in Parenting the First Time Through at The Communities at The Washington Times.


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Brighid Moret

Brighid is a freelance writer and first time mother.  She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.  Find her on Facebook @Brighid Moret

 

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