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All About Pregnancy

Can You Prevent Preterm Birth?

New research reveals how to lower your risk of giving birth too early

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Here in the U.S., roughly one in 10 infants are born before the 37th week of pregnancy. Premature babies face a host of complications, both immediately and long-term. The good news: We are finally getting closer to some answers on how to prevent premature birth.

The March of Dimes (MOD), a nonprofit organization devoted to pregnancy and baby health, has established five research centers around the country to reduce early birth rates. Recently, scientists discovered six different genetic areas that influence the length of pregnancy and the timing of birth. “Both environmental and genetic factors contribute to preterm birth, and genetics may be responsible for as much as 40 percent of the risk,” says Louis Muglia, M.D., Ph.D., co-director of the Perinatal Institute at Cincinnati Children's Hospital and principal investigator of the MOD Prematurity Research Center-Ohio Collaborative. “This new study is the first to reveal what some of those genetic factors actually are.”

Thanks to this discovery, we may have diagnostic tests, new medications, better supplements, and more changes that could help more women have full-term pregnancies in the next five years, Dr. Muglia notes.

In the meantime, there is still a lot you can do to decrease the odds of delivering your baby too soon.

Pay attention to your family history

If this is your first baby or you delivered full-term before, find out whether your mother or sisters went into early labor and let your doctor know, recommends Dr. Muglia. If they did—especially if you were a preemie—your risk for giving birth prematurely goes up and your provider can monitor you more closely. What doesn’t contribute to your odds: Premature births on your father’s side.

Weight matters and so does what you eat

Too much weight gain during pregnancy increases your risk of developing complications (like gestational diabetes or preeclampsia) that, in turn, can raise the risk of preterm delivery. Gaining too little weight can increase odds as well, since your baby may not get proper nutrition. Pay attention to your diet as well, says Amy Murtha, M.D., a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “Your baby needs lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins to develop properly.” Regular exercise also helps you maintain a healthy weight and reduces stress—which is another factor in kick-starting labor too early.

Stay away from smokers

You know not to smoke (or drink or do drugs) while pregnant. But it’s also critical to avoid secondhand and even thirdhand smoke—the kind that leaves nicotine and other chemicals on surfaces. If friends or family members can’t part with their butts, meet them in a non-smoking public place.

Take care of your teeth

Hormonal changes during pregnancy cause gums to swell and bleed, making them more susceptible to gum disease, which is associated with preterm birth, Dr. Murtha says. Don’t skip dental cleanings. If you're due for X-rays and nervous about radiation, ask your dentist if you can hold off.

Treat infections ASAP

Vaginal infections, including bacterial vaginosis and urinary tract infections, are associated with preterm birth. Some of these conditions are silent so make sure you’re tested for them, and see your ob-gyn if you experience vaginal burning or unusual discharge. Bypass infections by washing your hands every time you use the bathroom or blow your nose.

Know the signs of preterm labor

“It’s important to understand what a real contraction feels like,” emphasizes Dr. Murtha, who is also a co-investigator at the MOD University of Chicago-Northwestern-Duke Prematurity Research Center. “We see a lot of first-time moms who think it’s too early and don’t come in soon enough. If your whole belly gets tight and feels firm like your forehead—versus more flexible, like your nose—you’re contracting, even if it doesn’t hurt as much as you think it should,” she says. If labor is caught early enough, doctors can administer medications to strengthen your baby’s lungs and delay delivery for a little while.

Also watch for these other signs of preterm labor and call your healthcare provider right away, even if you’re not sure:

• Any change (watery, mucus, bloody) or increase in vaginal discharge

• Pressure in your pelvis or lower belly, like your baby is pushing down

• Constant low, dull backache

• Menstrual-like or abdominal cramps, with or without diarrhea

• Your water breaks—which may occur as a slow leak or big gush