One of the scariest parts of becoming a parent – aside from the roller-coaster ride of pregnancy – is the possibility of having a “preemie,” or baby born before 37 weeks.
All premature babies have an increased risk of serious medical complications, and usually begin their lives in the hospital’s “NICU” – neonatal intensive care unit.
No parent wants to imagine this “nightmare scenario” happening to them and their child. But when 1 in 8 babies are born prematurely in the U.S. (a total of 500,000), the possibility of having a premature birth must be seriously considered.
So, what – if anything – can parents do to prevent a premature birth? According to a recent interview with March of Dimes’ Deputy Medical Director Diane Ashton, regular vaginal ultrasounds before week 20 might help lower the risk. Several recent studies have shown that ultrasounds are a more accurate way to determine a woman’s due date, versus basing it off of when her last menstrual cycle began.
The thing that makes premature births so difficult to prevent, however, is that doctors simply don’t know what causes most of them. In up to 40 percent of premature births, the cause of prematurity still remains a mystery.
“There will always be pregnancies that need to be delivered early due to medical concerns for the mother or child,” said Dr. Hal Lawrence, vice president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “Prematurity will never entirely go away, but we need to work to make the instance of premature birth as low as we safely can.”
Doctors do know that there are four main factors that contribute to premature labor: bacterial infection, psychosocial stress, uterine bleeding, and the stretching of the uterus; due either to multiples in the womb or excessive amounts of amniotic fluid. The stretching of the uterus has the potential to release chemicals that cause early contractions.
Presently, the premature birth rate in the U.S. is 12.3 percent – a slight drop from the previous year’s rate of 12.7 percent. Still, it’s far from the March of Dimes’ goal of 7.6 percent.
Change in Cognitive Function Over Time in Very Low-Birth-Weight Infants (pdf) JAMA, February 12, 2003—Vol 289, No. 6