Tommy's PregnancyHub

Lifestyle factors 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. Try not to worry if you had a a night out in which you drank alcohol before you knew you were pregnant, the likelihood is that it will not affect your baby. You can make a conscious decision to avoid alcohol though once you know you're pregnant. The same goes for smoking and the other activities that may harm your unborn baby.

Read more here on changing your lifestyle to reduce the risk of premature birth.

Alcohol, recreational drugs and preterm birth

Alcohol can harm your developing baby, and the ‘safe’ level of alcohol exposure, if there is one, is not known. Therefore the Chief Medical Officers of all the UK countries recommend that if you’re pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all, to keep risks to your baby to a minimum. It is particularly important to avoid alcohol in the first three months of pregnancy.

If you use cocaine or heroin while pregnant, you have a higher risk of having your baby prematurely and they may have problems with growth and brain development.

Read more here about alcohol and pregnancy.

Smoking and preterm birth

Smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of stillbirth and premature birth up to two-fold and is associated with waters breaking earlyintrauterine growth restriction and cot death. The more cigarettes smoked, the higher the risk.It is never too late to give up: even if you stop in the final weeks of pregnancy, your baby will still benefit.

What you can do to reduce your risk is to give up now.

Read more here about the support available to quit in pregnancy.

Mother's age and preterm birth

If you become pregnant in your teens or over the age of 35, you will have a higher risk of premature birth.

Mother's weight and preterm birth

You are at higher risk of having your baby early if you have poor nutrition or are underweight - particularly if your body mass index (BMI) was below 19.8 before you became pregnant.

If you are obese (with a BMI of more than 30), you are also at increased risk of miscarriage, diabetes, pre-eclampsia, blood clots, baby becoming stuck in labour, and having a heavy baby.

If you find you are already pregnant and overweight, you must not diet during pregnancy, but you can improve your lifestyle.

Read more here on managing your weight in pregnancy here.

Income and employment

It is widely recognised that people who have more opportunity in life have better health. There is evidence of inequalities across many areas of health - and that includes the occurrence of premature delivery, which is higher among women who come from more deprived backgrounds. Heavy physical work, standing for a long time and shift/night work are also linked to preterm birth.

Antenatal care

Many women who have premature babies have less frequent contact with antenatal services, either because they are unavailable or the mother does not attend appointments. This means that the healthcare team cannot spot warning signs or risks of early delivery as you have certain tests and checks during antenatal appointments that are designed to pick up conditions that could leaf to preterm birth.

What you can do to avoid this is to try and attend all of your antenatal appointments.

Psychological state

Women who experience physical abuse are at increased risk of premature labour, and women who are victims of domestic violence are more likely to have a premature baby.

Women experiencing stress from a serious life event are at greater risk of premature birth. Premature birth is also linked to a wide range of psychiatric disorders.

If you're feeling very stressed, don't struggle on alone: it's important to get help. You could confide in your partner or a friend, or seek advice from your GP. Find out where to get help for depression.

Ethnicity and preterm birth

In most developed countries, women from non-white ethnic groups are more likely to have very premature birth than other women, although the extent to which social and economic factors contribute to this is unclear.

  1. NICE (2010) CG62 Antenatal Care: Routine Care for the Healthy Pregnant Woman. 2010, National Institute of Clinical Excellence
  2. Norman J, Greer I (2011) Preterm labour, managing risk in clinical practice. 2011, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. BMJ Best Practice.
  4. Macdonald S, Magill-Cuerden J (2012) Mayes Midwifery. Fourteenth edition ed. 2012: Balliere Tindall Elsevier.
  5. Raatikainen K et al (2007) Under-attending free antenatal care is associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes. BMC Public Health, 2007. Vol 27.
  6. Yost NP et al (2005) A prospective observational study of domestic violence during pregnancy. Obstet Gynecol, 2005. 106(1): p. 61-5.
  7. Barrios YV et al (2014) Risk of spontaneous preterm birth in relation to maternal experience of serious life events during pregnancy. Int J Womens Health, 2014. 6: p. 249-57.
  8. James D, Steer P (2011) High risk pregnancy, management options. Fourth edition ed. 2011: Elsevier Saunders.
  9. RCOG, 2011, Why Your Weight Matters During pregnancy
Review dates

Last reviewed: 5 October 2016
Next review: 5 October 2019