Born too soon: Preemie Awareness
In honor of Prematurity Awareness Month this November, we look at the risk factors and effects of premature birth, and speak to a mom who has been through it twice.
Each year, 380,000 babies – or one in 10 – are born too soon in the United States. Not only is this rate one of the worst in the developed world, it also means that premature birth and its complications are the number-one cause of infant death across the nation.
Defined as giving birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy, preterm birth is shrouded in mystery. Despite the enormous body of research on the topic, scientists still don’t fully understand the complex causes behind it.
The risk factors for premature birth
Thankfully, researchers have been able to identify numerous risk factors that increase a woman’s chance of giving birth too soon. These include:
- A history of preterm labor or birth
- Multiple pregnancy (twins, triplets, etc)
- The use of assisted reproductive technology (IVF)
- Abnormalities of the reproductive organs, such as a short cervix
- Issues with the placenta, such as placenta previa
- Certain infections, such as urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted infections and vaginal infections
- Certain chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and blood-clotting problems
- Being underweight or overweight before pregnancy
- Less than six months between pregnancies
- Being part of certain ethnic groups, such as African-American women who are 50% more likely to give birth preterm
- Being under 18 or over 35 years of age
- Certain lifestyles factors, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, using illicit drugs, poor nutrition, poor health care, stressful life events such as the death of a family member or domestic violence, and exposure to environmental pollutants.
If you’re concerned that you may be at risk of giving birth prematurely, speak to your health care provider.
The long-term effects of preterm birth
Premature birth can have a range of long-term repercussions on a child’s health and development. Preemie babies can experience delays in physical development, learning, communication and social skills. They may also have behavioral problems such as ADHD, neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy, and autism. Health issues can include asthma, chronic lung disease, infections, intestinal problems, vision problems, hearing loss and dental problems.
Despite all these risks, many premature babies fare well. The closer they are to full term (37 weeks), the less likely they are to experience any long-term effects.
If you have any concerns about your child’s development, address them with your health care provider. They may recommend early intervention (EI) services to help your child learn certain physical, cognitive, social and emotional skills between birth and age three. These state-run programs are usually free.
After age three, special education services are available from your local school district if your child needs them.
The emotional toll on families
A lesser-discussed effect of premature birth is the emotional impact it has on families. Baltimore mom Jennifer Tarr knows the sound of the NICU alarms all too well after giving birth to her son Alex at 27 weeks and her daughter Olivia at 29 weeks.
“I imagine that with a full-term baby, you just wonder if they have all their fingers and toes,” she says. “With Alex, I was like, ‘Did he go to the bathroom?’ Because if not, that could mean necrotizing enterocolitis [an intestinal disease]. ‘Is he moving properly?’ Because if not, that could mean cerebral palsy. ‘Will he pass his eye exam?’ Because if not, there could be blindness. ‘How is his head ultrasound – did he have any bleeds?’ It’s this whole world you never even knew existed.”
While Olivia, now nine, hasn’t experienced any long-term consequences of being born prematurely, Alex, 12, is still contending with a range of physical and developmental issues.
“As a baby, he had chronic lung disease, so he was hooked up to an oxygen tank and an apnea monitor for the first six months of his life,” says Jennifer. “Then, as a toddler, he was behind on a lot of fine motor and gross motor skills, and his weight was low. He’s been taking growth hormone since age three and he’s just now on the growth charts at 74lbs.
“He also has a 504 in school, which is an accommodation for different learning styles. He might need extra time for a test or extra help from the teacher. He also had to have a hernia repaired at age three and there were other operations… there have been lots of things to worry about. As a parent of a premature baby, you’re always wondering when the next shoe is going to drop.”
Where to seek help and get involved
November is Prematurity Awareness Month and November 17 is World Prematurity Day. The March of Dimes, a global leader in the fight against premature birth, urges everyone to show their support and raise awareness by going purple this month. Light up or decorate your office or home in purple, dress in purple, and post your photos on social media using the hashtag #worldprematurityday and tagging @marchofdimes.
If you’re the parent of a premature baby and you need support, visit the March of Dimes website.