4 Steps to Reducing Preterm Births


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Photo courtesy of Kristina Bessolova/Shutterstock.com

In North Carolina and across the U.S., one in 10 babies is being born too soon, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization focusing on national health issues. Preterm birth is the birth of an infant before 37 weeks of pregnancy and is the greatest contributor to infant death.

It’s also a leading cause of long-term neurological disabilities in children. Every week of gestation is important for a developing infant, so understanding your risk for preterm birth and how to reduce that risk is essential to your unborn child’s health.

Contributing Factors

A host of medical factors and health conditions can contribute to a preterm birth, such as high blood pressure, preeclampsia, diabetes or blood clotting disorders; having “your water break” early (called preterm premature rupture of the membranes); and having a family history of preterm birth. Other risk factors include the mother’s age and race. Being younger than 17 or older than 35 also increases the risk of having a preterm birth. Across the U.S., there are racial health disparities in the outcome of preterm birth rates. It’s not fully understood why race plays a role in preterm birth, but researchers continue to explore possible contributing factors.

Prevention Tips

Preventing preterm birth remains a challenge due to the fact that the causes are numerous, multifaceted, and not completely understood. However, there are four steps women can take to reduce their risk of preterm birth and to improve their own health.

1. Get healthy before you get pregnant. Instead of waiting until you’re pregnant to talk to your health care provider, make an appointment with a doctor or specialist before you become pregnant so he or she can help you prepare your body for a healthy baby and explain your risk for preterm birth, as well as how to mediate that risk. To learn more about preconception health, visit showyourlovetoday.com.

2. Break up with tobacco. Tobacco use during pregnancy remains one of the most common preventable causes of pregnancy complications, illness and death among infants. Pregnant women should not use any form of nicotine products, including electronic cigarettes. Compared with babies born to nonsmokers, babies born to women who smoke during pregnancy are more likely to be born preterm, according to a study published in February 2014 that was based on data from the Taiwan Birth Cohort Study Database. Also, tobacco causes many of the conditions that contribute to preterm birth. Check out You Quit Two Quit at youquittwoquit.org/pregnantwomenmothersandfamilies to learn more.

3. Consider 17P medication. If you had a baby born early once before, you are likely at risk of having it happen again, according to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the National Institutes of Health. There is now a progesterone medication, 17P (17-alpha hydroxyprogesterone caproate), that may prevent preterm birth among women who have had a prior spontaneous preterm birth of one baby. Talk to your health care provider to learn more about this medication. Learn more about 17P at carolinaparent.com/reduce-your-chance-of-having-another-preterm-baby.

4. Space out your pregnancies. Thinking about your family size and spacing is important. It is recommended to wait at least 18 months between giving birth and getting pregnant again to help prevent a preterm birth, according to an April 2006 study published by the National Institutes of Health. Start the conversation with your health care provider during your pregnancy about the contraceptive method you’d like to use postpartum.

Sarah Verbiest is the executive director of the University of North Carolina Center for Maternal and Infant Health; a clinical associate professor at the UNC School of Social Work; a CDC senior adviser for the National Preconception Health and Health Care Initiative; and co-chair of the Perinatal Health Committee, which is part of the Child Fatality Task Force. 

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