What is Premature Birth?



A premature birth, or preterm delivery, is the birth of a baby before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy. Babies are considered to be full term from 37 weeks of pregnancy and will have a maximum chance of healthy development, and allow their bodies enough time to develop and function well if they are born from this time.
What causes premature birth?
More work is needed to understand the causes of premature labour. Research has identified some risk factors that may increase a woman's chance of having a premature baby, although it is important to acknowledge that many women with no known risk factors will have a preterm labour. In fact, the majority of premature births occur without any obvious cause or known risk factors.

Some known risks are listed below:

Multiple Pregnancy - Overstretching of the womb that occurs in the case of twin or triple pregnancies is thought to increase the risk of premature labour.

Maternal Age - Although not a major factor, it is recognised that mothers under 20 or over 35 years of age have a slightly higher risk of preterm labour.

Fetal Development - If the baby is not thriving in the womb, for example if the placental blood supply is impaired or there is evidence of growth retardation, then this can lead to premature birth.

Lifestyle Factors - Some habits or lifestyle influences can increase the risk of having a premature baby. These include smoking, using recreational drugs, having a high  caffeine intake, a poor diet or being underweight, and engaging in overstrenuous physical activity.

Previous Gynaecological History - Women who have had surgery on their cervix may have suffered damage to the opening of the womb. This can cause the cervix to open too soon in pregnancy, resulting in premature labour.

Pregnancy-Specific Maternal Disease - Certain medical conditions specific to pregnancy, which if left untreated or become severe during pregnancy can cause preterm labour. Examples include pregnancy-induced diabetes and Pre-Eclampsia, (which in itself is a cause of at least 15% of all pre-term births), and Obstetric Cholestasis (liver disease characterised by excessive itching).

Maternal Medical Conditions -  Some medical conditions evident prior to pregnancy have been linked to an increased risk of premature birth. E.g. Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), Antiphospholipid Syndrome (APS), or renal disease, may increase the risk of premature labour.

Infection - Vaginal infections, such as gonorrhoea, chlamydia, trichomonas, bacterial vaginosis and group B streptococci have all been linked to preterm labour. Bladder infections can also trigger early labour if left untreated.

Cervical Incompetence - In some women, the cervix will shorten and open too soon and labour will spontaneously follow.

References
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