National Centre for Preterm Birth Research – your questions answered

Tommy’s Prof Andy Shennan answers our community’s questions on premature birth, and our new National Centre for Preterm Birth Research.

We'll soon be opening our National Centre for Preterm Birth Research, dedicated to finding tests and treatments for premature birth. We want to reduce the number of babies born too soon, and give the next generation the best start in life.

We know our community have questions about premature birth, the centre itself, and how it will make a difference for families. Prof Andy Shennan, expert in premature birth, has answered your questions below.  

How common is premature birth?  

Premature (or preterm) birth is when a baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. In the UK, 1 in 13 births will be premature – that’s 6 babies every hour. It’s a very common pregnancy complication, and we just don’t know enough about what causes it. Our new research centre will change this.

Where is the centre located and can we self-refer?

Tommy’s National Centre for Preterm Birth Research is a collaboration between 5 leading universities, looking for ways to predict and prevent premature birth. It’s led by Professor Catherine Williamson at Imperial College London, in partnership with Kings College London, University College London, Queen Mary’s University of London and Leeds University.

Our centre collaborates closely with a network of NHS Preterm Birth Clinics. At these specialist clinics, the team translate our cutting-edge research into improvements in care. They help researchers connect with women and birthing people who are eligible to take part in our clinical trials. The centre also benefits from partnerships nationally through Local Maternity Preterm Birth Networks and the UK Preterm Birth Clinical Network.  

When no cause is found for preterm birth, what are the chances of it happening again?

Most of the time, premature births happen on their own, and often doctors won’t be able to find out why. But, there are some things we do know increase the risk of premature labour.  

In some cases, premature labour or birth is planned because it's safer for the baby to be born sooner rather than later. This could be because of a health condition in the mother (like pre-eclampsia) or in the baby (like fetal growth restriction).  

Pregnancy loss or complications, like premature birth, are never your fault.

If you’ve previously had a premature birth, the care you’ll receive to reduce your risk of giving birth early in a future pregnancy will depend on why you’re at risk. Your healthcare team may carefully monitor you with the aim to prolong your pregnancy for as long as safely possible and they may offer you tests or treatment if needed.  

You may also be given advice on lifestyle changes you can make to help reduce your chances of premature birth. If you’ve been told you’re at risk of giving birth early, it’s important to look after your emotional health too and try to reduce stress as much as possible.

Our new centre will carry out ground-breaking research to help us understand the causes of premature birth and help us to better identify those at risk. With your support, our centre will deliver the step-change needed to reduce the rate of premature birth in the UK and give a new generation a better start in life. Together, with your support, we can help more families take home healthy babies.

What causes placental insufficiency and is there a treatment?

There are many reasons your placenta might not work as well as it could, and there’s no one cause of this. Our new centre will be carrying out research to look at the range of things that can affect the placenta, like air pollution and other immune conditions.

Researchers will also look at ways to test whether there are problems with the placenta earlier in pregnancy to help improve outcomes for mum and baby.  

Does preterm birth stunt height long term?  

Most premature babies develop as expected and have healthy childhoods.

If your baby is born prematurely, the healthcare team may plot their early growth on a different growth chart than for babies born at term. It’s easy to become very focused on comparing your child with other children or worrying about whether things might have been different if they had been born at term. 

Some parents find themselves thinking of development milestones as ‘targets’ that indicate the success or failure of their child. Try to keep in mind that all babies are different and will develop at their own pace, no matter when they were born.