Did you know that any baby born before 37 weeks of pregnancy is considered preterm? A typical pregnancy is 40 gestational weeks, with day one of week one being the first day of your last menstrual period.

If you give birth to a preterm infant, your baby may experience a host of problems that may require admission to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Often, the severity of the problems depends on how many weeks too early they were born.

The earlier a baby is born, the more immediate and long-term health problems they are likely to have, such as respiratory, digestive, brain, and developmental delays.

Prematurity causes babies to struggle with regulating their temperature and blood sugar (glucose) or can cause babies to have to be on a ventilator for respiratory distress. Birthing a baby preterm is typically stressful and devastating for parents.

If born premature, your baby would need close observation ranging from a few hours to weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit with continued, close follow-up after discharge for many months.

Preventing prematurity

So, what can you do to keep your baby from being born too early? While researchers have recently identified key hormonal changes that may unlock clues as to why some babies are born early, there’s still no way to predict which pregnancies end in preterm birth.

There are, however, things you can do to reduce your risks of experiencing preterm labor and birth, plus warning signs that can help you seek early and necessary treatment that you can watch for and relay to your healthcare provider to help prevent a preterm birth.


What women sometimes think of as the normal aches and pains of pregnancy can be warning signs of preterm labor or birth. Why not get these symptoms checked out to make sure that you’re not in early labor? If something doesn’t feel right, call your healthcare provider. Or go to the hospital if the symptoms don’t go away after drinking a couple glasses of water or juice and resting for an hour on your left side.

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You know your body better than anyone. If something’s not right, seek medical attention. There are no limits to doing what’s best for you and your baby – even if it means several trips to your provider’s office or the hospital to make sure that you’re not in early labor.

Preterm labor or birth warning signs

  • Contractions: place your hand on top of your belly and it will feel like a hard ball tightening in a pattern every 10 minutes or more often
  • Watery or bloody vaginal discharge
  • Pelvic pressure that feels like the baby is pushing down
  • Menstrual-like cramps
  • A low, dull backache
  • A general sense that something ‘just doesn’t feel right,’ especially when coupled with abdominal cramps and diarrhea

Physical risks

You have little control over the physical risks related to preterm birth:

  • History of a previous preterm birth
  • Being pregnant with multiples (twins, triplets, etc.)
  • Having an abnormal cervix or uterus

Lifestyle risks

But you can control the known lifestyle factors related to preterm birth by doing the following:

  • Start and continue prenatal care early in your pregnancy
  • Quit smoking or using tobacco if you do
  • Avoid alcohol or illicit drugs
  • Seek help if you’re in a violent or abusive relationship
  • Reduce your stress
  • Ask for help in taking care of your other children or your household
  • Find time to sit or recline if you work long hours on your feet


Joanne Goldbort, PhD, MSN, RN, is an assistant professor in the College of Nursing at Michigan State University and an expert nurse adviser to Healthy Mom&Baby.

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