Preventing Preterm Labor
Timing is everything, and when it comes to labor and delivery, it’s even more important. Many women joke that they are ready to deliver their bundles of joy once their pregnancy begins to feel heavy and cumbersome, but in reality, women will agree that delivering early – before the baby is fully developed – is a frightening thought.
Premature labor, occurring before 37 weeks, is a factor in about 10% of all pregnancies in the United States. A healthy pregnancy lasts between 38 to 42 weeks. Survival is possible for babies born as early as 24 to 27 weeks, but the baby will likely face health difficulties.
“There are certain risk factors that increase a woman’s risk of having premature labor,” explained Scott Bergstedt, MD, ob/gyn with OBG-1 of West Calcasieu Cameron Hospital. “But, having a specific risk factor doesn’t mean it’s destined to happen, it just means we need to pay careful attention and do everything we can to sustain the pregnancy until the baby is fully developed. Technology today has come so far. Preterm babies have a much better chance of surviving and doing well as compared to 10 or 15 years ago.”
Women who are pregnant with multiples, have had a previous premature birth, or have certain uterine or cervical abnormalities are at risk for preterm labor. Circumstances that occur during the pregnancy can also cause a higher risk for an early labor, including:
• recurring bladder or kidney infections
• urinary tract infections
• infection with fever greater than 101 degrees F during pregnancy
• unexplained vaginal bleeding after 20 weeks of pregnancy
• chronic illness such as high blood pressure, kidney disease, or diabetes
• underweight or overweight before pregnancy
• short time between pregnancies (less than 6 – 9 months between birth and beginning of the next pregnancy)
“Preterm labor can happen to anyone, though. Statistics show that only half of the women who have preterm labor have a known risk factor. It’s something we watch during prenatal checkups and we encourage women to be aware of the signs just in case it should happen,” explained Dr. Bergstedt.
There are no guarantees to avoid preterm labor, but by knowing the risk factors and taking as many precautions as possible, it may be possible to avoid it. Nurturing a pregnancy until the baby is fully developed is done best with good prenatal care. “Prenatal visits help us monitor the health of both the mom and the baby and take care of any unusual symptoms. Things that may not seem like much can often become serious problems if left untreated,” Dr. Bergstedt said.
A healthy eating plan is another key factor in sustaining a pregnancy. For the health of the baby as well as the mom-to-be, getting adequate folic acid, calcium, iron, and protein are essential. The baby needs these nutrients and will take them from the mother’s system, if needed. Make sure they are in abundant supply to avoid deficiencies. In addition to getting these nutrients through a healthy diet, taking a prenatal vitamin will help fill in any gaps. Many doctors encourage women who are trying to become pregnant to take a prenatal vitamin so that they have built up plenty of nutrients to give the baby a head start on a healthy life from the moment of conception.
Managing chronic conditions, like high blood pressure or diabetes, is crucial for a healthy pregnancy. “Women with these conditions before pregnancy need to be on high alert throughout their pregnancy. Most of the time the pregnancy progresses smoothly, but that is often due to diligent watching and careful behavior,” said Dr. Bergstedt. In addition, risky behaviors like smoking or drinking alcohol should definitely be avoided.
Knowing the warning signs of preterm labor may help in preventing delivery by alerting your physician if you experience any of the following:
• a contraction every 10 minutes, or more frequently within one hour
• watery fluid leaking from the vagina
• low-dull backache felt below the waistline
• pelvic pressure
If any of these symptoms are present, it’s important to call your ob/gyn. There are things that can be done at home to try to prevent preterm labor from progressing; there are also medications that can be given. “The longer the baby is in the womb, the better the chance he or she will be healthy,” said Dr. Bergstedt. “Babies who are born prematurely are at higher risk for brain and other neurological complications, as well as breathing and digestive problems. Premature labor doesn’t always result in premature delivery,” he stressed. “Some women are put on bed rest to avoid an early delivery.”
Pregnancy can be a scary time with so many unknowns. The best medicine is to have regular prenatal visits so that your doctor will be familiar with your situation. In the end, a healthy baby is the ultimate reward.