The Truth About Premature Births


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By Dr. Charles Bowers, M.D., FACOG, FACS

According to the March of Dimes, approximately 380,000 babies in the United States are born prematurely each year. This means that one out of every 10 babies is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Too many babies are being born early, and there are infants all across the country fighting for their lives in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). An even more frightening fact is that premature birth is the largest cause of infant mortality.

Even if a woman does everything that is recommended during pregnancy, the possibility of having a premature baby still exists. However, there are several risk factors that can increase the odds of a woman experiencing a premature birth, so it is important for doctors to pay special attention to the warning signs in these instances.

Some of the risk factors for premature birth include:

  • History of loss – Pregnant women who have experienced a second trimester loss with a previous pregnancy or have faced multiple losses may be at a greater risk for premature birth. As a result, doctors should be aware of a patient’s complete medical history in order to assess the level of risk that each pregnant woman may be facing.
  • Short cervix in the second trimester – During a routine sonogram in the second trimester of pregnancy, a short cervix may be detected. The anatomy scan is typically performed around 18-20 weeks, and cervical surveillance will also be completed during this time. If the cervix measures 2.5 centimeters or less, then the patient should be referred to a maternal fetal medicine (MFM) specialist who will know how to handle the issue. While some generalists are educated on what to do about a shortened cervix, an MFM is specifically trained in this area of expertise.
  • Infections – Untreated infections can also result in premature births. This includes urinary tract infections, vaginal infections and sexually transmitted infections. Frequent urinary tract infections that are left untreated are a cause for premature contractions, which can then lead to premature birth. Additionally, there are other infections that can make their way into the womb. Such infections include chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV, E-Coli and Group B Strep. Chorioamnionitis can develop if the infection reaches the womb, meaning that the sac holding the baby and surrounding fluid become inflamed and infected.
  • High blood pressure and/or diabetes – High blood pressure (hypertension) impacts many individuals, and it can be even more dangerous for pregnant women. When hypertension is chronic or improperly managed, it can lead to premature birth. Additionally, when high blood pressure progresses during pregnancy, it can lead to preeclampsia. Diabetes, whether it was preexisting or developed during pregnancy, also puts both mother and baby at risk for a premature delivery.

Being aware of these risk factors gives pregnant women a greater chance at leading full-term pregnancies, but only if their doctors perform their due diligence as well. The reality is that pregnant women cannot volunteer information that they do not know. Physicians are the ones who should be asking questions and performing necessary tests.

If you happen to be the mother of a preemie, you are likely asking yourself many questions about what you have experienced.

Did I do something to cause my baby to be born prematurely?

As mentioned above, there are several risk factors for premature birth, and many of them are out of the mother’s control. If you maintained healthy habits and received prenatal care throughout the pregnancy, you did your job.

What can I do to help my preemie?

If possible, give your premature baby the nourishment of your breast milk. A mother’s milk can be live saving for these fragile human beings. You also need to speak up for your baby. Preemies do not have a voice, so they rely on their caregivers. Parents also know their babies best, so do not hesitate to voice your concerns or speak up if something does not seem right.

What types of health problems can a premature infant face?

The longer a baby stays inside of the womb, the greater chance he or she has at being healthy. Babies that are born too early are more likely to experience breathing, hearing, vision and developmental problems than those babies who are born full-term. The good news is that medical advances have made it possible for preemies to live normal, happy and healthy lives.

While doctors are not the root cause of women experiencing troubles like multiple pregnancy losses or a short cervix in the second trimester, physicians should have the knowledge to recognize that the risk factors mentioned all have the potential to cause a premature birth. Failure to properly recognize the warning signs and manage the pregnant women who may be at risk for premature birth is a deviation in the standard of prenatal care, and such negligence may be considered medical malpractice.

If you or a loved one believe that a premature birth was the result of medical malpractice, contact the attorneys at Ross Feller Casey to learn about your options.

About the Author

A leading physician and national medical expert, Dr. Charles H. Bowers, Jr., joined Ross Feller Casey’s Medical Forensic Evaluations Department in 2012.

Charles Bowers

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