At your first ob/gyn visit, your doctor or midwife will confirm your due date based on your last menstrual period and/or an early ultrasound. In most cases, your baby will make his appearance a few weeks to days before or after this date. On the other hand, in the United States, about 11 percent of little ones come into the world prior to 37 completed weeks of pregnancy.
While some of these babies are delivered preterm for maternal or fetal medical reasons, about 70 to 80 percent are born after the mother goes into spontaneous preterm labor.
Preterm labor is defined as uterine contractions that lead to a change in cervical dilation. Although not all preterm labors lead to preterm deliveries, it’s important to understand some risk factors for early delivery and to recognize the signs and symptoms. Although many advances in the care of preterm infants have been made, babies born long before their due dates may have significant long-term medical issues and, in some cases, may not survive.
Fortunately, there are a few interventions that may decrease the risk for a preterm delivery. If you have had a preterm delivery in a previous pregnancy, it is imperative that you inform your healthcare provider, as a weekly intramuscular medication may be given starting in the second trimester. Other medications can be given once preterm labor is diagnosed to try to prolong the pregnancy. While these medications may help slow down contractions to allow interventions like administering steroids to accelerate fetal lung maturity, there is no medication or procedure that can guarantee a full-term pregnancy.
If you have any symptoms of preterm labor, it’s important to call your provider as soon as possible so that she can direct you to the right office or hospital for evaluation. If labor is progressing quickly, delivering your preterm baby in a hospital with a higher level of specialty infant care can increase the chances of survival and decrease long-term complications.
Lynsey Caldwell Owen, MD, FACOG, is an obstetrician/gynecologist at Malcolm Grow Medical Clinic on Andrews Air Force Base and at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital.