Need To Know: Preterm Birth

Issue No. 4: Black Maternal Health
Words - Edwina Horton: RN
Illustration - Alexandra Folino


Preterm birth

also known as premature birth, is when a baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Babies born this early often show physical signs of prematurity and can develop a range of medical complications.

Risk Factors
The three main risk factors for preterm birth are:

  • Having a preterm birth in the past

  • Carrying twins or multiples

  • Abnormalities of the uterus or prior cervical surgery

Health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure, or using tobacco, alcohol or illicit drugs during pregnancy are also risk factors. Unfortunately, ⅔ of preterm births occur in individuals with no risk factors at all.

Heavy pelvic pressure, dull backaches, your water breaking prematurely, or vaginal bleeding or spotting in the third trimester could be indicators of preterm labor. Health care providers should be called immediately if a pregnant person experiences more than six contractions in an hour despite rest, or if any vaginal bleeding occurs.

Long Term Effects
While many children who are born preterm grow up to lead healthy lives, others can face health problems that cause chronic illnesses and long-term disabilities.

Preventative Care
In certain cases, the hormone progesterone can be used during pregnancy to help reduce the risk of preterm birth. Progesterone should be used only if it is offered by your provider.

Breaking unhealthy habits like smoking, and receiving treatment for excessive drug use are steps you can take on your own. You should also get tested and treated for any infections that involve your reproductive system, such as UTIs and STDs. Prenatal assessments are also important because conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes can be diagnosed and managed early.

Finding Support
For many individuals, preterm birth is often unexpected, but no parent should feel alone. Organizations like Graham’s Foundation guide families who experience preterm birth, and offer care package programs. The National Coalition for Infant Health advocates on behalf of preterm infants from birth to age 2, and provides accessible information and supportive services for families.