The exact cause of preterm birth (birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy) can be difficult to nail down. Research does show that women who have delivered one preterm baby, are at an increased risk of having another preterm birth.
Medical advances have made it possible for babies born prematurely to survive, babies born too early may experience short- and long-term health problems that vary based on how early they were born. Babies born extremely preterm—less than 25 weeks—will face more health challenges than those born closer to 37 weeks. Preterm birth complications can include vision or hearing problems, as well as delayed cognitive and social development that can last a lifetime. There is also an increased rate in infant mortality.
Certain risk factors increase the chances of delivering a baby early—being pregnant with multiples, having babies close together or experiencing health-related complications during pregnancy, like gestational diabetes—but many women with these risk factors go on to deliver healthy, full-term babies. That’s why predicting—or preventing—a preterm birth is such a challenge.
In addition, Black women are at increased risk of experiencing preterm birth. In 2018 (the most recent year for which data is available) the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the preterm birth rate among Black women was about 50 percent higher than the rate among our white counterparts. The data provides an opportunity for the health system to understand and change what’s happening systematically that affects things like bias and support for all women, regardless of ethnicity, education or socioeconomic status.
Though preterm birth is hard to prevent, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of having your baby early:
1. Establish a strong support system. Studies suggest having a strong support system can help to prevent preterm birth because surrounding yourself with people who can help you can lower your risk of stress or depression. A supportive network looks different for everyone, but ask yourself the following questions to help determine what will make you feel safe and prepared for your baby:
- What do I need to feel safe in this pregnancy?
- Who can help me make good lifestyle choices and decisions related to pregnancy?
- What techniques can I use to reduce my stress? (think: meditation, mindfulness, walking, yoga)
- How can I access a therapist or professional if I’m feeling anxious or depressed?
2. Have an easy way to get in touch with your care team. Whether it’s your first pregnancy or third, be sure you have an easy way to reach your care team. This ensures someone can advise you on what to do if you’re concerned about preterm contractions or other warning signs, like cramping or bleeding.
3. Try to plan your pregnancies at least 18 months apart. Women who get pregnant with a second baby within six months of their first are at an increased risk for delivering a baby prematurely. So try to space out your pregnancies at least 18 months apart. This gives your body time to recover after pregnancy. Talk to your doctor about what contraceptive or family planning methods may work best for you.
4. Maintain a healthy weight. Most instances of preterm birth can’t be attributed to a specific cause, but certain chronic health conditions, like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, can increase the risk. Obesity is a particularly tough issue for us; the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health has reported that roughly four out of five African American women are either overweight or suffering from obesity. To lower your chances of delivering a baby preterm, talk to your doctor about how to achieve a healthy weight through exercise and a nutritious diet—both of which are important for a healthy pregnancy.
5. Don’t smoke or use recreational drugs. Smoking and recreational drug use can raise your risk of preterm birth. If you’ve tried unsuccessfully to quit before, now is a great time to try again. Talk to your health care provider for ways she can support your efforts to stop smoking or eliminate recreational drugs.
6. Guard against infections. An infection in the uterus is a medical reason for delivering a baby preterm and often the most obvious cause of early birth. Any infection can compromise your immune system, increasing your risk of health problems. Some infections, such as a sexually transmitted infection, can directly affect your baby. That’s why you should be tested for STIs early in pregnancy to rule out chances of an infection.
Preterm deliveries may not always be preventable. But a supportive team can help you navigate pregnancy and motherhood with the resources you need to feel secure, safe and prepared.