Understanding the risk factors for early labour

Premature birth: Understanding the risks and signs of early labour

by Catriona Watson |

You’re waiting for your baby to arrive around your due date, but what if they have other ideas? Every mum wants their baby to be happy and healthy which includes ideally carrying your baby to full term (42 weeks). However, some mums go into premature labour and are forced to give birth to their child earlier than they expected.

Premature labour can happen for a number of reasons but if you're worried there are certain factors that you can look out for and lifestyle changes you can make that can help you understand and potentially reduce your risk.

What counts as premature labour?

Any baby born three weeks before their due date/before 37 weeks is considered premature. The NHS recommends calling your midwife or maternity unit if you are less than 37 weeks pregnant and you have:

  • regular contractions or tightenings

  • period-type pains

  • a "show" – when the plug of mucus that has sealed the cervix during pregnancy comes away and out of the vagina

  • a gush or trickle of fluid from your vagina – this could be your waters breaking

  • backache that's not usual for you

What are the risks associated with premature labour?

Any baby that is born before reaching full term is vulnerable to the problems associated with being born prematurely. Serious problems are rare with babies born after 32 weeks but babies born before this point may require hospital treatment for help with breathing, feeding and temperature control, and often spend many days in an incubator on a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Premature babies may also suffer from developmental problems as they have not fully developed in the womb.

According to the NHS, "Babies are considered 'viable' at 24 weeks of pregnancy – this means it's possible for them to survive being born at this stage." This means that babies born before 24 weeks are unlikely to survive.

What causes premature labour?

The cause of premature labour is not always known. There are several lifestyle factors that can increase your risk of premature labour as well as medical conditions or pregnancy complications. It is always best to maintain a healthy lifestyle during your pregnancy. This includes a healthy diet, avoiding restricted foods, exercise and cutting out things that can be harmful to your unborn baby, such as smoking or drinking.

Sometimes premature labour is pre-planned and the mother is induced. This is because it is safer for the baby to be born sooner rather than later, usually because of a pre-existing or pregnancy-related medical condition.

Premature labour risk factors:

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1) Weight

Being both underweight and overweight are linked to premature labour. If you have poor nutritional and a body mass index (BMI) of below 19.8 this can increase the risk of premature labour. Conversely, if you are overweight, with a BMI of more than 30 you can increase your risk of pre-term labour as well as miscarriage, diabetes, pre-eclampsia, blood clots, and having a heavy baby.

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