Giving birth to your premature baby

Giving birth is one of the most life-changing experiences you'll ever have, but it doesn't always go as planned, especially when your baby is premature.

If your baby is born prematurely, your experience of giving birth may be quicker than you might have expected because preterm labour is often slightly different to full-term labour .

What is premature labour like?

In some cases premature labour starts by itself, but almost half of premature births are through preterm induction (started artificially) or caesarean because the woman has developed life-threatening pregnancy complications or the baby is not growing properly (IUGR). The healthcare team may consider that delivering the baby early is the safest option.

The main difference between preterm labour and full-term labour is that preterm labour is likely to be much faster . This means that you may move very quickly from stage 1 of labour to stage 2 (see below).

The healthcare team will also be monitoring you and the baby much more frequently and checking the baby's position (breech babies are more common before 34 weeks). They will also be ready to perform emergency procedures if necessary.

The stages of labour

Labour is usually described in three separate stages :

  • Stage 1 Contractions start softening and stretching out your cervix before it opens up (dilates) wide enough to let the baby through.
  • Stage 2 This is the pushing stage and lasts from when your cervix is fully dilated until after the baby is born.
  • Stage 3 The baby is born and you deliver the placenta (also called the afterbirth).

Extra help for your baby

If you are exhausted or your baby is distressed, or if he is not moving out of the birth canal, you may need help to give birth. This means either forceps (which gently cup the baby's head like spoons) or a ventouse (suction cap) to gently help him out. A ventouse can be used only at 34 weeks or more, once the baby's head is sufficiently developed for it .
Both these procedures may leave short-term marks, bumps and bruising on your baby's head, but these will disappear over time.

Read more about pain relief options during preterm labour.

Premature birth may change your birth plan

Many women do not attend antenatal classes until around week 30 , so if you have your baby unexpectedly before this you might not have even considered or heard about birth plans or gone to sessions to learn about labour and birth.

If you have written a birth plan, having your baby prematurely may disrupt many of your choices, including where you give birth as this will mean that:

  • You will need to go to hospital rather than having the baby at home or in a midwife-led unit .
  • If your hospital of choice does not have specialist facilities for premature babies, you may need to be transferred to one that does.

Premature birth can be accompanied by complications for mothers and babies so it's important to be aware that there may be unexpected changes along the way.

Premature birth your way

If your premature birth is planned, then you will have time to prepare. This means you can still have some control over your birth experience by planning ahead and:

  • sharing any quiet moments with loved ones
  • using music, low lighting or clothing that makes you feel comfortable
  • asking questions to the professionals around you
  • trying to focus on your baby, the little person at the centre of all this hubbub.

If your labour is induced

If there is a risk to your baby's health or your health, labour can be induced. Common reasons for this are pre-eclampsia or fetal growth restriction (when your baby is not developing as he should in the womb). There are however other reasons why it may be best to induce labour early.

To induce labour, the midwife or doctor will put a pessary or gel into your vagina, or a drip in your arm, or both . Once it starts, an induced labour may proceed naturally, though it might take 24 hours or more to get going.

If induction does not work, your doctor and midwife will assess your condition and your baby's wellbeing. You may be offered another induction, or a caesarean section – your midwife and doctor will discuss all the options with you.

Read about what happens after a preterm birth here.

The baby unit

Caring for your baby

  • Mother holding baby to her chest.

    Kangaroo care

    Skin-to-skin contact with your premature baby is a wonderful way for you both to bond. It also provides health benefits.

  • Mother holding premature baby.

    Caring for your baby: your role

    You will play an important part in your premature baby's care, even while they are in the NICU.

  • Premature baby using feeding equipment.

    Feeding your premature baby

    Your premature baby's diet will be carefully balanced to suit their tiny digestive system while meeting the needs of their growing body.

  • Premature baby in incubator.

    Positioning your premature baby

    Positioning your premature baby correctly can make them feel secure, improve their breathing ability, strengthen their muscles and reduce the risk of cot death.

Treatment and medical support your baby may have

Last reviewed on July 1st, 2014. Next review date July 1st, 2016.

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