According to the World Health Organisation, premature birth affects around 15 million babies each year. Around 1 million will die from complications, while others face lifelong health issues.
Health professionals around the globe are working to prevent premature birth, but it’s proving to be a stubborn problem. With so many babies affected, there’s also a huge need for both immediate and long-term support for these children.
What is premature birth?
A pre-term birth is when a baby is delivered before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy. Babies who are born early face a range of possible problems, from breathing difficulties and infection through to serious disability and even death. Many premature babies need long periods of care in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
The earlier a baby is born, the more difficulties it will face. Babies born before 28 weeks of pregnancy are considered extremely pre-term. Babies born from 28 to 32 weeks are very pre-term.
What causes a baby to be born early?
In the simplest terms, either labour starts too soon, or doctors are forced to step in and deliver a premature baby for medical reasons.
Doctors still don’t know exactly how contractions start. However, there are some well-recognized risks for pre-term labour. A common issue is the “waters breaking” ahead of time; this is called Pre-Term Pre-Labour Rupture of Membranes (PPROM). Other common risk factors include bleeding from the placenta, infection inside the womb, twins or triplets and weakness of the cervix.
In other cases, either the mother or baby becomes so unwell that it is unsafe to continue the pregnancy. Doctors must step in and deliver the baby early. Common reasons for this include high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia, infections, trauma, and babies who are very small or have abnormalities.
Women at risk of pre-term birth
Pre-term birth prevention has developed quite a lot in recent years. Women are being checked for a variety of risk factors in early pregnancy, e.g. pre-eclampsia or a short cervix. There are also more treatment options available, the most significant being the increasing use of progesterone.
There are multiple causes for pre-term birth, so preventative measures must be individualised to each woman. Any woman who has a pre-term birth should have the events reviewed carefully by a high-risk obstetrician. By identifying the most likely cause, the obstetrician can recommend the best options to reduce her risk in any future pregnancy.