A premature baby is born before the 37th week of pregnancy. The rate of preterm birth has greatly increased in the last twenty years. Many premature babies will be too small and too sick to go home. Instead, they face weeks or even months in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). These babies face increased risk of death and serious medical problems; however, most eventually do go home.
While doctors have made advances in caring for babies born too small and too soon, we need to find out how to prevent babies from being born too early. However, it is difficult to predict which women will deliver prematurely (before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy). Doctors know that some women have risk factors that increase their chances of having a premature delivery.
Studies suggest that there may be four main routes or pathways leading to preterm labor:
• Maternal or fetal stress – mental or physical stress may trigger premature delivery.
• Infections – the body’s natural immune response to certain infections may lead to premature delivery.
• Bleeding – the uterus may bleed due to certain conditions.
• Stretching – the uterus may become overstretched with the presence of two or more babies.
Even if a woman has one or more risk factors, it does not mean that she will have preterm labor. However, all women should learn the signs of preterm labor and what to do if they have any of them.