Born Too Soon

October 17, 2016

Taking Precautions to Prevent Premature Birth

Pregnancy is often a time of celebration; a season marked with hope and the promise of new life. However, each year a staggering 15 million moms face the daunting reality of giving birth prematurely. Preterm birth may lead to a host of medical complications for your new baby. In order to give your child a fighting chance, it is important to understand the risks, recognise the signs during pregnancy and learn to provide the best care for your unborn child.

The fight for survival

A mother’s womb provides the ideal conditions for a baby to grow until it reaches full development at around 40 weeks of gestation. The longer a baby stays within this protected space, the better its chances of survival. A child born before 37 weeks of pregnancy is considered a ‘preemie’ (premature baby). Sadly, the earlier a baby is born, the greater their risk of death, illness and possible long-term health complications.

According to the World Health Organisation, preterm birth is the leading cause of death in children under the age of 5. Although the youngest surviving preemie was officially recorded at only 21 weeks and 5 days of gestation, the majority born this early do not survive. This is particularly evident in developing nations where medical facilities are not adequately equipped to deal with early deliveries.

Essential healthcare

Over the years, modern medicine has done much to help predict, prevent and care for those facing premature births. Many of these young lives will require weeks (and even months) in intensive care units under medical surveillance. Under the expert care of medical professionals, there remains hope for steady progress towards full development. Some of the tiniest babies go on to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. Our very own Olympic champion Wayde Van Niekerk, born three months premature, is a shining example of what can be accomplished through the life of a preterm baby.

The risks

Each pregnancy presents its own challenges. However, there are a number of risk factors to avoid when you are expecting.  Your overall health, weight and diet are important. Mothers who pick up too much weight during pregnancy may be at a higher risk of developing complications such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes. Both of these conditions will increase your risk of premature labour.

Other risk factors include high blood pressure; smoking or substance abuse; frequent uterine infections; severe emotional or physical stress; a previous premature birth; or the presence of multiple babies, such as twins or triplets. Pregnant mothers over 35 or under 17, also face higher risks of premature birth.

Aim for optimal health

It is important to take care of yourself, and in turn, care for your unborn child. Good nutrition, regular exercise and prenatal care including prenatal vitamins are important to ensure your baby’s overall wellbeing. If you are planning to have future children, aim for at least a one year gap between pregnancies. New research suggests that mothers are more inclined to give birth prematurely if the gap between pregnancies is less than 18 months.

Recognise the signs

If you are pregnant and your baby is not due for a couple of weeks (or months) it is vital to pay careful attention to any changes in your body. Immediately call your doctor if you experience contractions that are 10 minutes apart (or less). Lower back pain, abdominal cramping or leaking of fluid could also be warning signs of premature labour. Remember, these signs may be a normal part of pregnancy but it is best to get checked out by your doctor to confirm whether or not you are in labour.

A medical team will be able to fully assess your situation and the health of your baby. A screening may also be suggested, especially in high risk pregnancies, which may determine your risk of premature birth. If your risk levels are found to be high, your medical practitioner may be able to help prevent an early delivery.

Those facing birth under 30 weeks of pregnancy are most at risk of complications. Born now, your tiny baby may be severely underweight and underdeveloped. For many, the heart or lungs may not have fully matured in the womb, leading to possible breathing problems, low blood pressure, temperature control complications and an overall poor immune system. Long term problems may include vision and hearing problems, as well as cerebral palsy.

Hope for the future

If you have a high risk pregnancy, take heart. Some of the world’s most influential minds had a premature start to life, from famous scientists, Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, to musical prodigy Stevie Wonder and author, Mark Twain. Modern medicine and new technological discoveries continue to make huge strides in the prevention and care of preterm deliveries.