Two recent studies suggest that premature babies may be at increased risk of symptoms associated with autism (social, behavioral and speech problems).
Studies also suggest that babies born very prematurely may be at increased risk of certain adult health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Who is at risk?
Any woman can give birth prematurely, but some women are at greater risk than others. Researchers have identified some risk factors, but providers still can't predict which women will deliver prematurely. Three groups of women are at greatest risk for premature birth: (1) women who have had a previous premature birth, (2) women who are pregnant with twins, triplets or more and (3) women with certain uterine or cervical abnormalities.
Certain lifestyle factors may put a woman at greater risk for preterm labor. These include: late or no prenatal care, smoking, drinking alcohol, using illegal drugs, exposure to the medication DES, domestic violence (including physical, sexual or emotional abuse), lack of social support, extremely high levels of stress, long working hours with long periods of standing.
Certain medical conditions during pregnancy also may increase the likelihood that a woman will have preterm labor. These include: infections (including urinary tract, vaginal, sexually transmitted and other infections), high blood pressure, diabetes, clotting disorders (thrombophilia), being underweight before pregnancy, obesity, short time period between pregnancies, being pregnant with a single fetus after in vitro fertilization, birth defects in the baby, and bleeding from the vagina.
Even if a woman has one or more of these risk factors, it does not mean that she will have preterm labor. However, all women should learn the signs of preterm labor and what to do if they have any of them.
How to reduce risk
A woman may be able to reduce her risk for premature birth by visiting her health care provider before pregnancy and, once pregnant, seeking early and regular prenatal care.
A preconception visit is especially crucial for women with chronic health disorders, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, which sometimes can contribute to premature birth. When a woman receives adequate preconception and prenatal care, providers often can identify and treat pregnancy problems early, helping to reduce the risk for premature birth.
Advise your physician of any medications (prescription, over the counter, or herbal) that you are taking. Learn about the signs of preterm labor and call your physician if you have concerns about your health during pregnancy, including if pain or burning with urination, as it can be a sign of an infection.
All women of childbearing age should take a multivitamin containing folic acid every day starting before pregnancy, as part of a healthy diet. A recent study suggests that taking folic acid for at least one year before pregnancy may cut the risk of having a premature baby by half. Taking folic acid before and during the early weeks of pregnancy also reduces the risk of certain serious birth defects of the brain and spinal cord.
A woman should avoid smoking, drinking alcohol and taking illicit drugs before and during pregnancy. She should try to reach a healthy weight before pregnancy because women who are overweight or underweight are at increased risk for premature birth. She also should gain the recommended amount of weight during pregnancy.
Also seek to reduce stress and rest/relax whenever you can. Women in an abusive relationship should talk to someone, as abuse often gets worse during pregnancy.
For additional information, please contact your health care provider.
The March of Dimes Web site can be an additional resource: www.marchofdimes.com.
More on breastfeeding
Here's an addition to the recent article on SIDS regarding the benefits of breastfeeding.
Studies also suggest that breastfed babies may be less likely than formula-fed babies to die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). In addition to that benefit, we also know that breast milk is easy for a baby to digest, so the baby may have less gas and discomfort than a formula-fed baby.
Breast milk provides the ideal amounts of protein, sugar, fat and most vitamins a baby needs for healthy growth and development. Breast milk also contains substances called antibodies that help protect a baby from many illnesses. Studies show that breastfed babies are less likely than formula-fed babies to have ear infections, lower-respiratory infections, meningitis, urinary tract infections and diarrhea.
Shawna Thomerson is a social worker for the Clark County Health Department.