Premature birth

Medically reviewed

Medically reviewed by Brenda G., MD | Written by SheCares Editorial Team | Updated: Jun 18, 2020

The thought of having to deliver your baby prematurely can be frightening. One in every 10 pregnancies comes to an end with a preterm labor, and although the doubts about your baby's well-being are natural, an early delivery does not always carry the weight of serious complications.

Keep on reading to find all the answers to pressing questions you might have about a premature delivery, including its causes and effects on your and your infant's health.

Premature birth

What is Premature Birth?

A premature birth is defined as a birth that occurs more than three weeks before the baby's due date, that is before the 37th week.

It is also called a preterm birth as it comes to a conclusion before the end of the 40th week, which encompasses a full-term pregnancy. The term is further divided into four categories, depending on the week in which the baby is born:

  • Extremely preterm: birth at or before 25 weeks

  • Very preterm: birth before 32 weeks

  • Moderately preterm: birth between the 32nd and 34th week

  • Late preterm: birth between the 34th and 36th week (most common preterm birth)
What is Premature Birth?

Causes and Risk Factors of Premature Birth

In many cases, preterm birth is not triggered by a specific cause. It might be the result of a combination of risk factors that evoke preterm labor although it can also occurs among women with no known risk factors.

  • History of premature birth

  • Having conceived through IVF

  • Short spacing between pregnancies (less than 6 months)

  • Maternal addictions

  • Poor prenatal care

  • Uterine, cervical, or placental abnormalities

  • Infections during pregnancy

  • Pre-pregnancy health conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure

  • Abnormal weight prior to conception (underweight or overweight)  

  • History of miscarriages or abortions

  • Trauma or injuries

  • Being of Afro American or Native American descent

  • Stressful life events
Causes and Risk Factors of Premature Birth

Signs and Symptoms of Premature Birth

The signs and symptoms associated with premature birth resemble those of going into labor in full-term. They include:

  • Strong and consistent contractions

  • Abdominal cramping and pelvic pressure

  • Waters breaking

  • Lower back pain

  • Diarrhea or nausea

  • Vaginal discharge called mucus plug

Signs and Symptoms of Premature Birth

Effects of Premature Birth on Pregnancy

Effects on the Baby

Although not all preterm babies suffer from serious health problems, being born too early might not provide enough time for organs to develop, leading to a number of complications. The most common health difficulties premature babies experience right after delivery include the following:

  • Breathing problems

  • Low body temperature

  • Heart issues

  • Bleeding in the brain

  • Jaundice and anemia

  • Feeding and digestive problems

  • Lower immunity

Moreover, premature babies might be predisposed to developing certain health conditions later on in life. These include cerebral palsy as well as impaired learning, vision, and hearing.

Effects on the Mother

The effects of a preterm birth on the mothers mainly have a psychological aspect. Most early-born newborns require more specialized care and are often separated from their mothers to ensure their well-being. This can take an emotional toll on women and disrupt their bonding time with their babies.

As a result of that, some mothers feel unattached to their infants, which give rise to a wide variety of feelings from guilt to anger to depression.

Effects of Premature Birth on Pregnancy

Risk Reduction of Premature Birth

It is important to remember that in most cases a premature birth is not caused by something a woman did or did not do. There are, however, a number of healthy practices that might help women minimize the risk of this pregnancy complication. They include:

  • Eating a wholesome, balanced diet will not only resolve any potential nutrient deficiencies, but  also help you maintain a healthy weight.

  • Quitting your addictions at least 3 months before getting pregnant can greatly decrease the risk of them compromising your pregnancy.

  • Reducing stress with yoga or meditation is good for your baby's development and might also lower the likelihood of early delivery.

  • Controlling your chronic conditions or infections before getting pregnant will help you prevent preterm labor and a wide range of other serious complications during pregnancy.

Also, a woman with a short cervix might be prescribed progesterone pills to prevent premature labor. Other women might choose to undergo cervical cerclage, which is a procedure during which the cervix is temporary tied for the duration of pregnancy to provide more support.

Treatment and Management of Premature Birth

Treatment depends on the individual health status of the baby upon delivery. In some cases, a preterm birth can be slowed down or delayed to give the baby a chance to continue developing in the womb.

Upon delivery, preemies generally require more specialized attention and are admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit to help them thrive.

  • Close monitoring. Many preemies are placed in incubators to keep a constant temperature, prevent infections, and closely monitor their heart rate, respiration, fluid input and output, and more.

  • Diagnostic tests. Following delivery, your baby will undergo a variety of tests, such as blood analyses, to evaluate its condition and better address its medical needs.

  • Medications. Babies that are born very early, might need medications to help their organs, such as lungs or digestive tract, mature as well as prevent bleeding in the brain.

  • Medical procedures. If your baby cannot swallow or suck on its own, it might be necessary to feed intravenously or with tube feeding. Ventilators can help the baby breath until the lungs fully mature. Some preemies with anemia or jaundice need blood transfusions or phototherapy.


The time when you and your baby will be discharged from the hospital is determined by whether your baby can meet certain requirements. They include an ability to breathe on his own, maintain stable temperature, breast or bottle-feed, and properly gain weight.

Once you return home, it might be necessary to continue with some treatments. This might be a stressful time for you. So, make sure you surround yourself with people you can lean on, and don't hesitate to ask for guidance and help.

As you baby grows, your doctor might direct you to adequate specialists to rule out or prevent further complications, like learning disabilities and other health conditions.

Treatment and Management of Premature Birth

Key Takeaways

Without a doubt, having a preterm baby can be truly distressing not only to the mother, but also her partner and other family members. Depending on how early your baby arrives and the extent of complications that follow, a preterm birth might involve complex therapies in the future. But thanks to medical advancements, babies delivered before the due date still have good chances for maintaining optimal health in the years to come.