Can Prematurity Be Prevented?

A woman may be able to reduce her risk for preterm delivery by visiting her health care provider before pregnancy and, once pregnant, seeking early and regular prenatal care. Visiting the doctor before planning to have a baby, known as a preconception visit, is especially crucial for women with chronic disorders, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, which sometimes can contribute to preterm birth. When a woman receives proper prenatal care, problems often can be identified early and treated, helping to reduce the risk for preterm birth.

A woman may want to make healthier lifestyle choices, such as avoiding alcohol, smoking and illicit substances beginning before pregnancy and throughout pregnancy. She should try to reach a healthy weight before pregnancy because women who are overweight or underweight are at increased risk for premature delivery.

One new treatment may help prevent a subsequent preterm delivery in women who have already had a premature baby. This treatment is currently recommended only for women with a previous spontaneous (not induced) preterm birth who are currently pregnant with one fetus. Studies show that treatment with the hormone progesterone (called 17P) reduces the risk for preterm delivery by about one-third in these women.

When a doctor suspects that a woman may deliver preterm, he may suggest treatment with corticosteroid drugs. Corticosteroids help the baby’s lungs mature more quickly to significantly reduce the risk of complications. Treatment is most effective when administered at least 24 hours before delivery. The doctor also may suggest treatment with medications (called tocolytics) that may postpone labor (often for only a couple of days). Even this short delay can give the doctor time to treat the pregnant woman with corticosteroids and arrange for delivery in a hospital with a NICU that can give appropriate care to a premature infant, which could make a lifesaving difference for the baby.

However, it is important to remember that even if a woman does everything right, she may still have a premature baby. More research still is needed to understand the risk factors for premature birth, such as how family history, genetics, lifestyle and environment may interact to put some women at greater risk for a premature delivery.

What Puts a Child at Risk for Prematurity?

Children are at risk for prematurity based on factors affecting the mother. Children that are multiples, such as one of twins, triplets, or more, are at higher risk than single babies. In more than 40% of the cases, doctors do not know why the baby was born premature.

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Resources:

Centers for Disease Control
Premature Birth

American Academy of Pediatrics
Premie Milestones Brochure

Kids Health
A Primer on Premies

March of Dimes
About Prematurity

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)

Preterm Labor and Birth