Most pregnancies last around 40 weeks; however, for a range of reasons, some babies are born earl. In Australia, close to one in every 10 babies is a premature (or pre-term) baby, which means they have been born before the 37th week of gestation.

Risks of early births

Fortunately, medical advances have greatly improved the survival rates of premature babies, with more than 90% of premature babies born between 32 and 36 weeks surviving. Intensive care technology is now so advanced that it is possible for babies born at 23 or 24 weeks to survive, but they have a much higher chance of serious problems.

Naturally, the longer your baby’s gestation, the more chance there is for them to have normal, healthy development – babies born before 34 weeks, or who weigh 2.5kg or less, are most likely to encounter health issues.

Some premature babies will be cared for in either a special care nursery or a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), depending on their stage of development and what specialist care they require. Medical support may be needed for their hearts, lungs, bowels, temperature control, feeding and digestion.

While most premature babies develop normally, they still need regular health checks as there is some risk of developmental problems.

What happens with a preterm birth?

If you go into labour early you might be given medicines to try and stop the contractions for a while. This at least can allow some extra time for a transfer to another hospital if needed. Sometimes you can be given injections of corticosteroids before the birth, which can help the baby’s lungs work more efficiently.

When it’s time for the birth, a neonatal unit might be present so that they can begin care for the baby immediately after the birth and before they are transferred to the NICU. They will keep the baby warm and help their breathing with an oxygen mask, breathing tube or medication. Sometimes an injection of adrenalin or cardio-pulmonary resuscitation is needed for the heart.

Causes of early births

For all the advances in neonatal technology and care, there is still a lack of understanding into what causes premature birth and how it can be prevented. Some of the known risk factors are:

  • smoking during pregnancy
  • conditions of the uterus or cervix such as fibroids or a weakened cervix
  • high blood pressure and diabetes
  • a multiple pregnancy
  • having had a previous premature birth.

While the best thing you can do to try and avoid a premature labour is to live a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy, you may still have a premature baby for reasons unknown. Just do the best that you can and know that your pregnancy support team will do theirs to give your baby the best possible start in life.