Explaining premature birth

If your baby is born early - also called 'premature' or 'preterm' - he may need special care.

Mum stroking premature baby in incubator.

There are numerous causes of premature birth and the effects, treatment and reasons for prematurity are extensively studied.

Definitions of 'premature' babies

The definition of a 'premature' or 'preterm' baby is one that is born before 37 weeks. There are different levels of prematurity and these carry their own risks. Very premature babies, born before week 26, are at most risk and are sometimes known as micro preemies. A baby born at 37 weeks or more is known as a 'term' baby. Generally the earlier your baby is born the higher the risk of health problems.

Causes of premature birth

We still have a lot to learn about premature birth so it's not always possible to explain the causes and why it happens. Factors such as infection can result in prematurely born babies but it is often more complicated than one single reason. This is partly why prevention of premature birth is still in need of extensive research - without knowing the causes, a treatment is difficult. 

  • Profile of pregnant woman drawn in chalk on black board.

    Intrauterine infection

    Intrauterine infection is infection within the womb. Research suggests that intrauterine infection may be responsible for as many as 40 percent of preterm births, and is also a risk factor for stillbirth.

  • Premature baby in incubator.

    Gestational age and medical needs

    As soon as your baby is born, the healthcare team will decide what level of care he needs. His health will often depend on how prematurely he was born. The chart below gives a very rough guide to how different ages of gestation could affect your baby.

  • Premature baby in incubator.

    Gestational diabetes and premature birth

    Diabetes is a condition in which there is an inability to control blood sugar levels and it leads to high amounts of sugar in the blood. Gestational diabetes is diabetes that develops during pregnancy.

  • Pregnant woman being checked by midwife.

    Problems with your baby's growth in the womb

    Intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR), also known as fetal growth restriction (FGR) is a condition in which a baby's growth slows or stops when they are in the womb.

  • Premature baby.

    Lifestyle and premature birth

    The way your life is lived can have an effect on your risk of premature birth. There are some things that you will not be able to change, such as ethnicity or age but there are some others that you may be able to change.

  • Couple at antenatal appointment.

    Your pregnancy history

    Your history of previous pregnancies and your medical history are factors in determining your risk of premature delivery.

  • Pregnant woman talking to health professional.

    Antiphospholipid syndrome

    Antiphospholipid syndrome (APS) is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system makes antibodies that attack and damage its own tissues or cells.

  • Premature twins.

    Multiple pregnancy

    Multiple pregnancy means carrying more than one baby, normally twins.

  • Pregnant woman being checked by health professional.

    Uterine abnormality - problems with the womb

    Some women have a congenital uterine abnormality, which is a womb/uterus that formed in an unusual way before birth.

  • Infographic of cervical stitch

    Cervical insufficiency (also known as incompetent cervix/cervical weakness)

    The cervix is the small canal at the base of the womb that connects it to the vagina. It is also known as the neck of the womb.

  • Infographic of PPROM

    Waters breaking early (PPROM)

    If your waters break early, seek medical advice straight away as you could be at risk of premature labour.

  • Plancental abruption infographic

    Placental abruption

    The placenta is your baby’s support system in the womb. If your placenta doesn’t work properly, your baby is at risk of health problems.

  • Woman having blood pressure checked by midwife.

    Pre-eclampsia

    Pre-eclampsia is a combination of hypertension (raised blood pressure) and proteinuria in pregnancy (the presence of protein in your urine).

Sources

  1. World Health Organisation, Preterm birth fact sheet, Geneva WHO, 2012 (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs363/en/)
  2. Norman JE, Greer IA (2011) Preterm labour: managing risk in clinical practice,Cambridge University Press 
  3. BAPM (2008) Management of acute in-utero transfers: a framework for practice.London, British Association of Perinatal Medicine
Hide details

Read more

  • Premature baby in incubator.

    Gestational diabetes and premature birth

    Diabetes is a condition in which there is an inability to control blood sugar levels and it leads to high amounts of sugar in the blood. Gestational diabetes is diabetes that develops during pregnancy.

  • premature baby sleeping.

    Your premature baby: Infection

    Premature babies have less developed immune systems and are more susceptible to infection, but there are ways to reduce the risk.

  • 'FAQ' written in pink chalk on black board.

    Premature birth FAQs

    Frequently asked questions on premature birth

  • Premature baby.

    Lifestyle and premature birth

    The way your life is lived can have an effect on your risk of premature birth. There are some things that you will not be able to change, such as ethnicity or age but there are some others that you may be able to change.

  • Couple at antenatal appointment.

    Your pregnancy history

    Your history of previous pregnancies and your medical history are factors in determining your risk of premature delivery.

  • Pregnant woman talking to health professional.

    Antiphospholipid syndrome

    Antiphospholipid syndrome (APS) is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system makes antibodies that attack and damage its own tissues or cells.

Last reviewed on June 1st, 2014. Next review date June 5th, 2017.

Was this information useful?

Yes No

Comments

Your comment

Add new comment