Updated October 2013
What you can do to reduce your risk of premature birth
It's not easy for the healthcare team to discover why some babies are born prematurely, but there are steps that can be taken that can slightly reduce your risk of premature birth.
Premature birth and managing your weight
Overweight or underweight? You're more likely to develop complications that could contribute to your baby being born prematurely. To reduce this risk, learn how to manage your weight healthily.
Premature birth and staying active
Being physically active throughout pregnancy will boost your overall wellbeing and reduce your risk of conditions such as diabetes and pre-eclampsia, which can lead to premature birth.
Unless you've been advised otherwise due to specific health problems, it's a good idea to do something active every day. This doesn't have to involve organised exercise, such as an antenatal fitness class: any activity you do in your daily routine counts, including walking.
Find out more about staying active in pregnancy here.
If you have been diagnosed with any of the following conditions associated with premature birth, please consult with your healthcare team before starting a new exercise plan or embarking on activity:
Premature birth and your mental health
Women who are stressed or depressed seem to be at higher risk of giving birth prematurely, but it's not clear why. It could be because they are less likely to lead healthy lifestyles.
Mental wellbeing is difficult to assess - not least because we all have different stress thresholds - but some factors linked with psychological distress have been linked with premature birth too.
Find out more about looking after your mental health during pregnancy.
Premature birth and smoking
Smoking while you are pregnant will harm your growing baby, and increase the likelihood of problems in your pregnancy. Smoking has been linked with premature labour, and the more you smoke the more likely you are to have your baby prematurely. Cutting down or stopping smoking is one of the most positive steps you can take to reduce the risk of your baby being born prematurely.
Smoking is clearly linked with premature labour, and the more you smoke the more likely you are to have your baby prematurely.
Find out more about pregnancy and smoking here.
Premature birth and alcohol
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is known to be a risk factor in causing premature birth. Giving up completely is safest, but if not, alcohol intake should be limited to one or two units once or twice a week.
Find out more about alcohol and pregnancy here.
Premature birth and drugs
Taking recreational drugs when you're pregnant can harm your baby and could increase the risk of premature delivery, so seek help to stop now. Substances such as ecstasy, cannabis, cocaine and heroin could harm you or your baby during pregnancy. Most women who use recreational occasionally often stop once they realise they are pregnant, however some women may have developed a dependency and carry on using throughout the pregnancy. If you have developed dependency it is important to seek help.
Why taking recreational drugs can risk premature birth
It's not just the chemical content of the drug that can increase your risk of premature delivery. Drugs can enhance mood or alter your perceptions, so they can impair your judgement and result in you making lifestyle choices that can increase your risk of premature delivery. Other risks include your baby suffering withdrawal symptoms after birth and other health and developmental problems.
Using medicines and during pregnancy
If you use any medication, always check first that it is safe to use when pregnant. Even some painkillers such as ibuprofen are not recommended during pregnancy. Tell your midwife or doctor if you are pregnant and are taking medication for any long-term conditions. If you are using any other legal drugs without a prescription, for example if you are dependent on painkillers or sedatives, you could be doing serious harm to your baby, so seek advice as soon as possible.
Find out more about the effects of drugs on pregnancy
Other health problems
If you use any medication for a pre-existing problem, for example thyroid disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart or kidney disease, always check with your specialist as soon as you know that you are pregnant because some of these problems require a slightly different approach during pregnancy.
Premature birth and infection
Many types of infection are associated with premature birth. Some infections can have specific effects on a pregnant woman or her baby, but any infection can compromise your immune system, making you more susceptible to further health problems for you or your baby.
Find out more about the infections associated with premature birth
How to protect yourself from infections and viruses
Get treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). STIs such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and genital herpes may affect your baby. If you think you or your partner have an STI, talk to your healthcare team or go to a confidential genitourinary (GUM) or sexual health clinic.
Seek advice about HIV. This can be transmitted through sexual contact or sharing needles if you inject drugs. Even if you are carrying the HIV virus, the right treatment can greatly reduce the chances of it being passed to your baby. If you are in any doubt, get a test and talk to your healthcare team.
Avoid animal-borne infections
- Always wash your hands after touching animals or their bodily fluids.
- If you have a cat, avoid contact with their poo, for example, when changing the litter tray, as it can carry the bacteria that cause toxoplasmosis, which can be harmful to your baby.
- Wear gloves when gardening in case there are traces of cat poo in the soil.
- Avoid contact with sheep, pigs and rodents.
Prevent food poisoning
- Avoid or limit certain foods because some may contain bacteria that could cause health problems for your baby.
- Be careful when you are preparing, storing or eating food: wash your hands thoroughly before and after touching food; don't eat foods beyond their use-by date; and disinfect any utensils or surfaces touched by raw meat or fish.
Improve general hygiene. Pay more attention than usual to washing your hands after going to the loo, before eating, after changing nappies and before touching your mouth.
Look after your teeth and gums. It might sound odd, but scientists have found a link between tooth decay, gum disease and premature birth, suggesting that inflammation and infection in the gum may be associated with premature labour. The experts agree that this probably does not directly cause premature labour, but it's another good reason to practise good oral hygiene. If you have dental problems during pregnancy it is worth mentioning them to your healthcare team. Dental care is free when you're pregnant, so take the opportunity to keep your mouth in tip-top condition.
Read more about infection and premature birth
In this section
Reducing the risk of premature birth:
You can also read about
The following organisations can give you more information about the topics covered in this section.
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Weight management before, during and after pregnancy, public health guideline 27, London NICE, 2010
Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Exercise in pregnancy, statement 4, London RCOG, 2006
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Antenatal and postnatal mental health, London NICE, 2007
Macdonald S, Magill-Cuerden J, Mayes’ midwifery, Fourteenth Edition, Edinburgh: Bailliere Tindall Elsevier, 2012
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Antenatal care: routine care for the healthy pregnant woman, London NICE, 2008
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Pregnancy and complex social factors, clinical guideline 110, London NICE, 2010
Public Health England UK teratology Information Service, Use of ibuprofen in pregnancy, London PHE, 2013. Also available at: http://www.uktis.org/docs/Ibuprofen.pdf#search=%22ibuprofen%22 (accessed 23 July 2014)
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Pre-term labour and birth: draft scope, London NICE, 2014
Food Standards Agency, Risk profile in relation to toxoplasma in the food chain, London FSA, 2012. Also available at: http://multimedia.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/committee/acmsfrtaxopasm.pdf (accessed 22 April 2014)