Premature birth - information and support

A 'premature' or 'preterm' baby is one that is born before 37 weeks. If your baby is born early they may need special care as they may not be fully developed.

What is premature birth?

The definition of a 'premature' or 'preterm' baby is one that is born before 37 weeks. There are different categories levels of prematurity and these carry their own risks:

  • Extremely preterm ( less than 28 weeks)
  • very preterm (28 to 32 weeks)
  • moderate to late preterm (32 to 37 weeks).

What are the symptoms of premature birth?

The following symptoms before 37 weeks of pregnancy could be signs that you are about to go into labour:

  • an increase in pelvic pressure within the vagina or rectum.
  • an increase in discharge and/or a gush/repeat trickling of fluid, which could mean your waters have broken (preterm premature rupture of membranes).
  • bleeding or losing your mucus plug.
  • period type pains in your abdomen or lower back. These may have a rhythm or be constant.

If you have these symptoms contact your hospital.

Read more about the signs of premature labour here.

Read more about being told you are at risk of premature birth here.

What is the treatment for premature birth?

If a pregnancy is found to be at high risk of premature birth, the mother is treated to extend the pregnancy as far as possible. There are various ways this is done.

Read about treatment for a pregnancy that is at high risk of premature birth here. 

Read about treating your premature baby in hospital after they are born here.

How common is premature birth?

In the UK, around 60,000 babies are born prematurely each year. The rate of preterm birth is between 7-8% across the UK.

Find out more detail on premature birth statistics here.

To talk to other parents of premature babies, visit BabyCentre’s friendly prematurity support group.

What are the causes of premature birth?

In some cases a cause of preterm birth can be shown but more often it is unknown or unclear. Complications, such as infection, cervical incompetence increase the risk. Women who are having a multiple pregnancy (twins, triplets or more) are also at higher risk of giving birth prematurely.

The reasons below can overlap, for example infection is linked to PPROM.

  • 25% of preterm births are planned because the mother and/or baby are suffering life-threatening complications such as pre-eclampsia, kidney disease or growth restriction.
  • 40% are linked to waters breaking early (premature rupture of the membranes).
  • 25% are linked to an emergency event, for example, placental abruption (when the placenta detaches itself from the uterus), infection, eclampsia or prolapsed cord (when the umbilical cord exits the body before the baby).
  • In 40% of cases the cause is not known.

Read more about the causes of premature birth.

Why is premature birth a problem?

During the nine months of pregnancy babies' bodies are developing in the womb to allow them to survive and thrive when they are born. When a baby is born too soon, some parts of their development will not have been finished and this means they are not ready for life outside the womb.

Luckily advances in neonatal care have come on greatly and neonatal units, special care units and paediatricians are equipped to support the baby until their bodies strengthen and develop fully.

However, the earlier a baby is born the higher the risk is of health problems. There are different levels of prematurity, and generally the risk increases the earlier the birth is - babies at highest risk are those born before week 26.

Read more about the effects of premature birth.

More sections on prematurity


  1. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Preterm birth and labour, guidance in development final scope, NICE, 2013. Also available at: (accessed 15 April 2014)
  2. ONS (2011) Gestation-specific Infant Mortality in England and Wales, 2011. Office of National Statistics, London, England
  3. ISD Scotland (2016) Births in Scottish Hospitals. Information Services Division, NHS National Services Scotland.
  4. NSRA Northern Ireland (2015) Registrar general annual report. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, Belfast, Northern Ireland
  5. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Preterm labour and birth. London: NICE, 2013. Available at: (accessed 2 February 2016).
  6. Henderson C, Macdonald S. Mayes midwifery: a textbook for midwives. Philadelphia: Bailliere Tindall, 2011.
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Last reviewed on April 1st, 2014. Next review date April 1st, 2017.


  • By Anonymous (not verified) on 29 Oct 2017 - 17:42

    My baby born 5 days back with 668grams(27weeks). Now baby is on ventilator. From last three days onwards giving mother feed to baby 1ml for every 3 hours. 1st day baby drunked perfectly. 2nd day baby drunked 1ml in 2hrs 30 min. 3rd baby taking 4hrs to drunk 1ml. Doctors told me like baby having some digestion problem. Could you please confirm me it is a common issue for all the premature babies. Meanwhile how many days baby will take to breaths on his own way.

  • By Midwife @Tommys on 30 Oct 2017 - 14:11

    Hi. As midwives we do not have the expertise to advise you about feeding your very small baby. This is specialist care and would be best answered by the doctors and nurses caring for you. We hope that your baby will thrive and that you will recover well too. Best wishes to you both x

  • By Mrs Chantal Branton (not verified) on 20 Sep 2017 - 16:28

    Hi I'm just wondering if you accept knitted items for the premature baby unit. Many thanks

  • By Midwife @Tommys on 20 Sep 2017 - 16:35

    Hi Chantal, we at Tommy's so not have the facilities to be able to do so, although we would love to!
    However, if you contact your local NICU, they will likely to be able to accept these from you for their poorly babies. They are always very welcome and delightfully received! Thank you so much for thinking of us, but they will be much more useful at your local hospital instead! Thank you for your support - we really appreciate it!!! Sophie, Tommy's Midwife

  • By Midwife @Tommys on 27 Jan 2017 - 09:41

    The safest would be to avoid foreplay especially if anything was to be inserted into the vagina. Whilst the evidence is weak, orgasms and foreplay may possibly bring on contractions and released oxytocin (hormone) which can help to bring on labour. There are no definites I am afraid but the safest option is to avoid all forms of sex.

  • By Kelly (not verified) on 25 Jan 2017 - 16:39

    I am currently 33 weeks pregnant and my waters broke at 30 weeks I have been advised to not have intercourse due to infection, does this include forplay? Sorry to ask personal question but I'm finding it so hard but at the same
    Time don't want to start contracting or get an infection

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