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What a Premature Birth Might Indicate

According to the March of Dimes, there are more than half a million babies are born prematurely annually in United States.

In up to 40 percent of cases, the cause of premature birth is unknown. Erin Hamilton-Spence, M.D., a neonatologist on the medical staff at Baylor All Saints Medical Center at Fort Worth, gives some basic facts about premature births.

What is preterm birth?

Any infant born more than three weeks before their due date is preterm.  Late preterm infants are born 4-6 weeks before their due dates.

What causes premature birth?

The true causes of premature labor have yet to be discovered.  We suspect it may be related to the pregnant mother’s response to an infection or other reason for her inflammatory and immune system to change drastically. Infants who have abnormal chromosomes or other birth defects are also often born early as complications of those problems.

Can premature birth be prevented?

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Early prenatal care is the best way to prevent preterm delivery.  You need to see an obstetrician, family practitioner, or midwife as soon as you know you are pregnant, or at the latest before you begin to look pregnant.

You should not drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or use other recreational drugs when you are pregnant. Get serious about treating any chronic medical problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or thyroid problems. Protect yourself from infections by frequent hand washing. Don’t eat unpasteurized cheeses or raw meat. Don’t change your cat litter if you get a new cat during pregnancy.

What are the dangers to a baby born too early?

Most babies born early have only very minor consequences. As soon as they can breath, eat, and stay, warm they can go home.

Those born less than 6 weeks early will usually have a short, uncomplicated hospital stay, and often go home before their due date.

However, they are the great pretenders, looking and acting like term infants, but just inconsistent. They may breath and eat fine one hour, but not the next. The biggest risks to their short-term health are breathing problems, low blood sugar, poor feeding and weight gain, jaundice, and hypothermia.

Are there any long-term consequences for babies born premature?

The more premature the infant is, the greater the risk for long-term consequences.  Though all of the body’s systems will mature and grow once outside the womb, they will grow in a different way than if they were still inside. So the development of the whole infant is changed when babies are born very early.

All parts of the body can be affected by premature birth including the lungs, heart, brain, eyes, kidneys, digestive and immune systems. Formerly premature infants have a higher risk of infections, particularly colds and flu.

One particular virus called Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) often gives former premature infants a difficult time in the first and second winters after they leave the NICU.

Overall, however, the majority of premature infants born as early as 10 weeks before their due date have very little long-term consequences of their prematurity. Before this time, their risk of complications rises quickly. 

About the author

Susan Hall
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Susan joined Baylor many years ago when Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas was the only Baylor facility in the area. When not at work, she’s outside – Big Bend National Park is her favorite with Glacier National Park a close second.

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What a Premature Birth Might Indicate