A baby who is born early is described as being premature – generally this means before the 37th week of pregnancy. Most babies who arrive prematurely after the 32nd week have a good prognosis. Babies born early before the 28th week are more at risk for disabilities such as cerebral palsy or learning difficulties. Babies born before the 23rd week are, sadly, unlikely to survive. Obviously the further along in the pregnancy a woman is then the better chance she has of delivering a healthy baby with none of the complications which occur when a baby is born early.
Very often there appears to be no reason for early delivery but there are some known risk factors –
- Multiple births often deliver earlier than 40 weeks.
- If you have already experienced a premature birth there is a 1 in 5 chance of it occurring again.
- Social factors – under 16s with little or no support are the most likely to have a baby born early.
- Age, class, education and type of work all appear to be factors in early deliveries.
- Smoking, substance abuse and mums low weight are all linked to premature births.
- Physical causes of premature birth include cervical weakness, abnormal womb, waters breaking early, heavy bleeding during pregnancy.
There are occasions when your medical practitioner may decide that your baby needs to be born early. You may need to have your labour induced or undergo an elective caesarean section. The reasons for this may be –
- Mum has developed pre-eclampsia
- Presence of a medical condition making it safer for mum to deliver earlier.
- Trauma to the belly
- Baby is not growing as he or she should be
- Baby has a medical condition or abnormality
If you begin to experience labour pains before you reach the 37 week mark of your pregnancy, or your waters break, you should call your medical practitioner for advice straight away – or attend your local maternity unit. If you are unsure about what is happening it is always better to seek advice.
Once at the hospital the doctors and midwives will need to establish if you really are in labour – this will involve giving a complete history and then probably an ultrasound scan and baby monitoring. In many cases when labour does start early it soon stops again. However if it doesnt stop you will most likely have to deliver your baby who will be born early.
If you are past the 34 week mark it is unlikely that your baby will need any medical treatment – he or she may be small but that is probably all. However a baby born before the 34 week mark may need specialised care in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit – your baby may be taken away before you have been able to hold him or her, which can be very frightening but the medical team will be able to explain what is happening and give you all the support you and your partner need. Babies born prior to the 28 week mark will need to be in a hospital which has specialist care for very premature babies – which may involve a journey.
If your baby has been born early and is in the NICU or specialised unit it is important that you see him or her frequently and that you are involved with the early care as much as possible.