One in 10 babies born in the U.S. was born preterm in 2021. This amounts to nearly 7,400 babies born prematurely each week. Preterm birth means a baby is born early, before the 37th week of a typical 40-week-long pregnancy. Being born prematurely means a baby is not able to fully finish growing and developing inside the womb. This means in the first days and weeks of their lives, “preemie” babies typically face health challenges. The earlier a baby is born, the higher the chances they will have more serious health issues.
Over the past decade, the preterm birth rate has slowly been increasing in the U.S. – from 9.8% in 2011 to 10.5% in 2021. In Michigan, the preterm birth rate is 10.6% – slightly higher than the national average.
Risk factors for premature birth
Many times, preterm births happen when there are no known risk factors. They can happen to anyone. However, there are some risk factors to be aware of:
- Pregnancy-related factors: Women pregnant with multiple babies – including twins and triplets – are at a higher risk. Additionally, a pregnancy less than six months after a previous pregnancy can raise a risk, as well as a previous premature birth.
- Health problems: High blood pressure and diabetes, some infections, injuries or trauma, as well as problems with the uterus, cervix or placenta could increase the risk of premature birth.
- Lifestyle factors: Becoming pregnant before age 17 or after age 35, undergoing a stressful life event, being underweight or overweight before pregnancy are all factors connected to a risk of premature birth. Additionally, behavioral factors including cigarette use and illicit drug use also increase the risk of giving birth prematurely.
Most preterm births occur during the late preterm stage:
- Late preterm: born between 34 and 36 completed weeks of pregnancy
- Moderately preterm: born between 32 and 34 weeks of pregnancy
- Very preterm: born between 28 and 32 weeks of pregnancy
- Extremely preterm: born before 28 weeks of pregnancy
Health pregnancy tips
For pregnant individuals, one of the best ways to prevent premature birth is to follow their doctor’s instructions for a healthy pregnancy, including:
- Individuals should get prenatal care from a health care provider as soon as they think they are pregnant, and throughout pregnancy as advised
- Quit smoking
- Avoid alcohol or drug use
- Individuals should share their medical history with their health care providers, especially if they have a history of preterm birth
- Seek medical attention immediately if you have signs of preterm labor
What to expect at the hospital
For parents, navigating a preterm birth can come with additional challenges. While parents cannot prepare for every possible scenario, educating themselves about hospital care for preterm babies may help if they encounter such an experience.
Preterm babies are often smaller and have less body fat. Since they are born before their organs have time to fully mature, they may need help breathing, feeding, fighting infections and regulating their body temperature. This care usually requires a longer stay in the hospital under the care of highly trained medical staff. If a baby needs a higher level of care, they may stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) where a team will closely monitor their health day and night.
Some hospitals may also have an intermediate care nursery, which is a step down from NICU care with less intensive care and the help of specially trained staff. For parents navigating these early days of their child’s life in a specialized care unit, know that professionals have treated many babies undergoing similar challenges – and are ready to help. Ask them questions and be sure to follow care instructions and follow-up appointments with pediatricians.
Angela Seabright, D.O., is a care management physician at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
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