Not long after the joy of discovering you’re pregnant, the worries set in. You may think you know all the threats — Zika virus, pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes — and take appropriate steps to minimize them. But what do you know about one of the most common pregnancy complications — preterm birth?
About one out of every 10 babies born in the U.S. are preterm — before the 37th week of pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Globally, preterm birth rates are on the rise and the U.S. ranks sixth among the 10 countries with the highest numbers of preterm births, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It is the only developed country among the top 10.
Effects of preterm birth
Around the world, complications from preterm birth are the leading cause of death among children younger than 5, the WHO reports. While in the U.S., more preterm babies survive, they’re still at a higher risk of lifelong health effects, including problems breathing and eating, developmental delays, behavioral problems, vision and hearing impairment and cerebral palsy.
“In addition to the health-related effects preterm birth has on babies and children, we must also consider the emotional and financial toll on parents and families,” says Jill Hechtman, M.D. Medical Director, Tampa Obstetrics. “Reaching full term is best for babies and their families.”
The March of Dimes estimates that preterm births cost employers more than $12 billion annually in healthcare costs. The high cost is attributed to prenatal services, delivery and postpartum care for the mom, as well as the high cost of the hospital NICU and outpatient medical care for the premature babies through their first year of life. Specifically, babies born prematurely spent an average of 15 days in the hospital and averaged about 20 outpatient medical visits, compared to full term babies, who spent approximately two days in the hospital and had 14 outpatient medical visits.
No one knows exactly why preterm births occur, but some factors seem to indicate a mother might be at a higher risk, including:
* Having already had one preterm delivery.
* Age — being very young or older.
* Carrying multiples.
* High blood pressure or other chronic disease such as diabetes.
* Alcohol use during pregnancy.
Many women have no symptoms, warning signs or obvious risk factors for having a preterm delivery. And, until now, there has not been a clinically validated, prenatal blood test, for asymptomatic women, to assess possible risks for preterm birth. A new test, The PreTRM test, provides mothers with singleton pregnancies (carrying one child) with their individualized risk of having a preterm birth. This blood test is done early in pregnancy, during the 19th or 20th week. It measures and analyzes specific proteins in the blood that have been shown to be highly predictive of premature birth.
“Knowing the risk of preterm birth can empower women and their partners to talk to their doctors about the chances of having a baby prematurely, and to learn what they can do to address that risk,” Dr. Hechtman says.
What you can do
As with any health concern, the first step is talking to your doctor. Discuss any potential risk factors that you and your doctor may be aware of, and whether testing is right for you. The CDC also recommends steps that could help reduce the risk of preterm birth, including the following:
* If you smoke, quit.
* Avoid alcohol and illegal drugs.
* Get routine prenatal care.
* Know the signs of preterm labor — which can lead to preterm birth — and get medical help immediately if you experience the symptoms.
“A lot of important development takes place during the final weeks of pregnancy,” Dr. Hechtman says. “Research and real-world experience shows us that for most babies, making it to full term will give them the best possible start in life.”