By Ali Weatherford

November is Prematurity Awareness Month. Prematurity is a major health concern around the world, but it might surprise you to hear that the United States has one of the highest rates of preterm birth of more than 60 industrialized nations.*

Preterm birth, or premature birth, is when a baby is born too early. Currently, this is defined as a baby born before the 37th week of pregnancy. Babies that are born too early are at risk for health problems at birth and later in life.

The good news is that prematurity is very often preventable, especially in an industrialized nation such as the United States. We have the resources to do better. Unfortunately, there is a lack of awareness, a lack of education, and sometimes a lack of good health care.

Ideally, everyone would receive information about how to prevent premature birth even before becoming pregnant. There are things we can do to be healthier before conceiving which can lower our risks for premature labor. If you have a medical condition like diabetes, high blood pressure, a sexually transmitted infection, or a number of other things, you can do things to resolve, treat, or work with these conditions before becoming pregnant. By treating these conditions, you will likely reduce your risks of premature labor. This kind of information is not typically offered during routine medical care, but if you want to become pregnant, let your doctor know. They can provide information and answer questions in advance to decrease your risks.

Hopefully, once you know you’re pregnant, you will receive information about how to reduce your chances of having a premature birth. Again, this doesn’t always happen routinely so make sure to talk to your care provider about your concerns at prenatal visits. Make sure to let them know if you have any risk factors for premature birth, and that you want to know more about preventing it. They can help you take the right actions for your care and refer you to other specialists if needed.

Get Prenatal Care

Getting good and consistent prenatal care can help reduce the risk of premature birth. As soon as you know you’re pregnant, find a care provider to support you during your pregnancy. This may be an obstetrician, a family practice doctor, or a midwife. These providers know about pregnancy health and can help you figure out how to have the healthiest pregnancy and birth possible. You may also want to consider seeing other practitioners for more specialized help if you have or develop medical conditions. For example, if you have diabetes, it is probably a great idea to see a dietician and your endocrinologist throughout your pregnancy. If you have a history of depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder, you can reduce your risks for preterm birth by seeking help from a therapist.

Have a Healthy Lifestyle

Fortunately, there are often very simple things you can do to reduce your risks for preterm birth. Prematurity is not always caused by serious health conditions or big complications. Often, it’s simpler things like inadequate nutrition, lack of exercise, too low or too high body weight, or high levels of stress. Often, you can significantly lower your chances of having a preterm birth when you can do some simple things like:

  • Eating more nutritious foods (see our article about What to Eat When You’re Pregnant)
  • Getting more exercise
  • Maintaining a healthy level of weight gain for your body
  • Seeking treatment when medical conditions arise
  • Keeping your stress levels low

Find Support

It can be hard to continue doing all of your everyday tasks AND stay on top of having a healthy pregnancy. You may be on your feet too much. You may find it difficult to find the time and energy to eat better and exercise. You might also have higher stress levels because of the extra stuff you’re having to think about and do, but also because sometimes pregnancy is just hard! You might be very uncomfortable physically, and have a lot to worry about when planning to have a child. You might have to think about childcare, how things will work with your job, new expenses and your finances, insurance, family issues, space in your home, giving birth.
There are a lot of new things that can cause stress when you become pregnant. If you don’t have enough social support, taking all of these things on yourself can be a big strain. Consider joining support groups, or asking for help from family, friends, neighbors, or co-workers. When you can let someone else help with the burden even just a little bit, you might feel A LOT better. Some local options for support include:

  • WIC has a great program for people starting in pregnancy.
  • Mama Sana Vibrant Woman support circles and workshops
  • Project Access for health care
  • Partners in Parenting is a group that connects expecting and new parents with others in their local community.
  • Black Mamas ATX has a Sister Circle Community for any Black woman or person interested in being part of a community of soon-to-be or new parents.
  • Any Baby Can has MANY programs that could be helpful for you. There are classes, and also the Nurse-Family Partnership for extra support and guidance during pregnancy.

Ask your care provider or do an internet search for local options for “pregnancy support” near you.

If Your Baby is Born Prematurely

If your baby is born prematurely, know that our healthcare system can provide wonderful care and support to get your babies healthy and back home as quickly as possible. When babies are born prematurely, it usually means they will spend some time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of the hospital until they are bigger and more mature. Sometimes their stay in the NICU is very short and other times longer. It depends on a number of factors, including how early the baby is born and the baby’s general health. While your baby is spending some time growing and getting stronger in the NICU, there are some things you can do to help.

Get help with breastfeeding and/or access donor human milk.

Sometimes premature babies get breastfeeding figured out quickly and people are able to easily feed their babies directly from the breast. Sometimes NICU babies have trouble breastfeeding and might need to be fed in alternate ways. If this is the case, it’s a great idea to visit with a Lactation Consultant in the hospital and make a feeding plan. You may be able to provide milk for your baby by pumping or hand expressing. If you get on a regular pumping schedule, you can likely maintain a good milk supply so that you can breastfeed your baby when they are ready. If for any reason you can not provide your own milk, donor milk is often available. This is pasteurized human milk supplied to hospital NICUs by a milk bank. Babies in the NICU get first priority for this milk because it has shown to help these delicate babies significantly more than using formula.

Skin-to-skin contact is important.

Research shows that premature babies benefit from as much skin-to-skin contact as possible. Often this can be done even when they are attached to machines by tubes and wires! Many NICUs allow skin-to-skin time when you visit, and it’s a wonderful way to bond with your baby when they can’t be home with you. As an added bonus, skin-to-skin contact can help you if you’re trying to maintain a milk supply with pumped milk.

One of the sources for this article is the March of Dimes website. The March of Dimes is an organization committed to helping improve the health of all moms, babies, and families. They give a significant amount of focus to the problem of prematurity in the United States through fundraising, policy and advocacy, spreading awareness, and research. They have great articles and resources on their website if you’d like to learn more.

You may also consider our live, online class Take it Easy: The Importance of Self-Care in Pregnancy & Postpartum. In this workshop, we talk about tips for taking care of yourself during pregnancy and after your baby is born.

*Industrialized nations are those with high levels of economic development, technologically advanced infrastructure, and a high standard of living compared with other countries.

Our articles are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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