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 [1]. The rate of preterm birth is between 7-8% across the UK [2].

Read more premature birth statistics.

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 or cervical incompetence increase the risk. Women who are having a multiple pregnancy (twins, triplets or more) are also have a higher chance of giving birth prematurely. The average length of pregnancy for twins is 37 weeks, and 33 weeks for triplets [3]. 

In 25% of preterm births, the delivery is planned because the mother and/or baby are suffering life-threatening complications such as pre-eclampsia, kidney disease or growth restriction [4].

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

Sources

1. WHO (2012) Country data and rankings for preterm birth 2012, World Health Organisation, Geneva, Switzerland, http://www.who.int/pmnch/media/news/2012/201204_borntoosoon_countryranki...

2. WHO (2012) Country data and rankings for preterm birth 2012, World Health Organisation, Geneva, Switzerland, http://www.who.int/pmnch/media/news/2012/201204_borntoosoon_countryranki...

3. NHS Choices [accessed 10/01/2018] Premature labour and birth, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/premature-early-labour/

4. NICE (2013) Preterm labour and birth scope 2013, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, London, England, https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng25/documents/preterm-labour-and-birth...

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Last reviewed on April 1st, 2017. Next review date April 1st, 2020.

Comments

  • By Elsy (not verified) on 20 Apr 2018 - 16:25

    I delivered at 36 weeks and my baby is facing shortest of blood. Transfusion was d best bet and I accepted but the blood is still dropping even with d supplements that prescribed by a Pediatric doctor. I want to know, Can I introduce formula to d baby? Will that help? Will I continue to transfuse? When will this end?

  • By Midwife @Tommys on 23 Apr 2018 - 14:53

    Hi Elsy, So sorry to hear that your baby is unwell. I am assuming that your baby is still in hospital under the care of the paediatricians. This can be very stressful for a new mother and if you need any extra support please don't hesitate to contact us. There is no benefit in introducing formula and many units are keen for the very young babies to be breast fed for as long as possible. Ask the doctors as many questions as you need to help you understand what treatments are being used. We wish you all the best. Tommy's midwives x

  • By Kirsty (not verified) on 30 Mar 2018 - 20:01

    Hi, I was admitted to labour ward at 27 weeks due to contractions, I tested positive for Fibronectin and given the steroid injections and magnesium. The contractions stopped after 24hours but I’ve had this constant pressure/menstrual cramping and back pain since. I’m now 30 weeks today and have had various trips to LW and baby’s heartbeat strong and very active. They don’t seem at all concerned with how much pain I am in. I’m hardly sleeping for it and feel sick a lot. Each time I’ve been cervix has been closed but I’m so fed up. Please advise x

  • By Midwife @Tommys on 4 Apr 2018 - 10:36

    Hi Kirsty. I am sorry to hear all that you have been going through. If you are in pain, then you need to go back into hospital to be reviewed on your hospital labour ward triage/day assessment unit.

    The fetal fibronectin test is a safe, reliable, non-invasive test
    (similar to a smear test) that measures the level of fetal
    fibronectin in your vagina. This is done by performing a speculum
    examination to try to visualise the cervix at the same time.
    Negative test result means you are unlikely to deliver soon. If
    you have symptoms you can be at least 99 per cent reassured
    that you will not deliver in the next two weeks.

    Positive test result means you may have your baby earlier than
    expected. A small percentage of women who have the test
    will get a positive result. This means that there is an increased
    chance that your baby could arrive early.
    The test results allow the doctors to make a plan of care for you
    and your baby. This plan will be dependent on how many weeks
    pregnant you are. The plan may include closer monitoring of the
    pregnancy, changes to your daily activities. You may be offered
    steroid injections to help mature your baby’s lungs should the
    baby arrive early. You may be admitted to hospital.
    It is important to note that not everyone with a positive test
    result will deliver early.
    What do I need to look out for after the test has been done?
    Whether the test be negative or positive you will be asked to
    contact your midwife or the hospital if you have any symptoms
    of pre-term labour, which can include:
    • regular painful contractions that don’t stop (eight in an hour)
    • period type cramps that come and go or are constant
    • changes in the amount, colour, consistency and smell of
    vaginal discharge
    • constant, dull back pain, loin pain or urinary cramp
    • pelvic pressure.

    Please do feel free to call us on 0800 0147800 if you want to discuss this urgently and in more detail. We are here for you if you need us.
    Sophie,Tommy's Midwife

  • By Caitlin (not verified) on 25 Jan 2018 - 15:50

    Im currently 33 weeks pregnant and having a terrible 4th pregnncy. Last night for a few hours i had tightning cramps which lasted around 36secs per 1.5mins. I woke up feeling better but today i have had alot of pressure down below along with what i thought could be my plug. Im in alot of pain but dont want to call triage incase its nothing. Advice would be great.

  • By Midwife @Tommys on 26 Jan 2018 - 10:07

    Hi Caitlin,
    I am sorry to hear that you have having such a terrible pregnancy. You explained that the tightenings that you experienced are quite short and have now stopped which is reassuring, however if you are still in a lot of pain then as you describe then it is important that you call your maternity unit to be reviewed. This is particularly important if you have had any loss down below too. Monitor your baby's movements carefully too, if you notice any changes or the movements reduce then again please do call your maternity unit straight away.

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

    Hi,
    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
    Chantal

  • 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

    Hi,
    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

    Hi
    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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