What Causes a Spontaneous Preterm Delivery?


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For most, pregnancy is a happy stage in a woman’s life. But for some, this feeling of anticipation and joy can morph into fear and a sense of helplessness. As parents, we strive to do everything in our power to protect our babies, starting from the moment we know they’re on their way. When a baby is born too soon, we’re left wondering if there’s anything we could have done differently.

What is a Preterm Birth?

In a typical pregnancy, infants are fully developed and ready to be born somewhere between 37 and 42 weeks, and an infant is typically considered “full term” after 39 weeks in the womb. At a gestational age of fewer than 37 weeks, an infant is considered preterm or premature. In the United States, around 12 percent of all births are preterm. According to the March of Dimes, whose mission is to reduce the frequency and morbidity associated with preterm births, just over 9 percent of the babies born in Pennsylvania are born before 37 weeks, which is slightly better than the national average.

There are many reasons for an infant to be born preterm, not all of which are clearly understood. Some preterm births are spontaneous (not at the direction of the mother or her doctor), and some infants are purposely delivered early for the health of the mother and/or baby. It’s estimated that 65-75 percent of preterm births fall into the “spontaneous” category.

What Causes a Spontaneous Preterm Delivery?

Multiple causes have been identified, including infection, inflammation, short cervical length, and uterine overdistension (either caused by too much amniotic fluid, multiple babies, or one large baby). Other contributing factors that are less clearly understood include maternal demographic characteristics, nutritional status, pregnancy history, and emotional or psychological problems.

What are Some Known Risk Factors?

While not causes in and of themselves, many different maternal factors can put an infant at risk of being born prematurely. Many women who deliver early have no risk factors, and it is not clearly understood how most risk factors may contribute to a preterm delivery. In general, there are two types of risk factors - those that the mother (with proper direction from her physician) can change and those that she cannot.

Risk factors that can be changed before pregnancy:

  • Low maternal BMI pre-pregnancy (thin or underweight)
  • Less than 6 months between pregnancies

Risk factors that can be changed during pregnancy:

  • Stress
  • Poor nutrition
  • Tobacco or drug use
  • Periodontal disease (such as gum disease or tooth decay)

 Unchangeable risk factors:

  • Previous preterm birth
  • Black race
  • Family history of preterm births (parents, grandparents)
  • Long-term illness
  • Low socioeconomic and/or educational status of the mother
  • Mother under age 20 or over 35

Does Preterm Labor Always Result in a Preterm Delivery?

Not necessarily. Frequently, if a woman is in preterm labor or is at greater risk of a preterm delivery, her doctor may recommend one or more types of treatment. With the aid of some of the following interventions, less than 10 percent of women in preterm labor will deliver within a week. It may not sound like much, but every day you can delay a preterm birth increases the likelihood of delivering a healthy baby. While interventions like these can often help, they are only effective when indicated. Consult a doctor if you have questions, and get a second opinion if you can without compromising the health of yourself or your baby.

  • Progesterone is a hormone given to some women who have had a previous preterm birth to help prevent it from happening again.
  • Bed rest is commonly recommended, but studies are conflicted on if it actually helps.
  • Tocolytic medicines (“labor suppressors”) can sometimes help slow or stop contractions.
  • Corticosteroid injections help the baby’s lungs develop faster when it seems like an early delivery is unavoidable.
  • Cervical cerclage is a procedure to stitch a weak or thin cervix closed (stitches are removed prior to delivery).
  • Antibiotics to treat a known or suspected infection.
  • Delivery of the baby if other treatments are not beneficial, or if the baby or mother’s health would be at risk by delaying the delivery.

When Should I Consider Seeing an Attorney?

A child's birth should be a joyous occasion, and no one deserves to suffer the serious, potentially life-threatening consequences that can follow a preterm birth. While many preterm births are unavoidable, there may be grounds to seek compensation if a doctor’s negligence resulted in a child being born too soon.

Suppose you or your loved one has suffered medically and financially due to an avoidable preterm birth. In that case, the experienced medical malpractice lawyers at Ross Feller Casey may be able to help. Our birth injury attorneys have extensive experience with birth injury and medical malpractice lawsuits, and have recovered over $1 billion for our clients in the past 5 years alone. We also have a team of doctors on staff, so we understand the complex medical challenges that can follow a preterm birth. 

At Ross Feller Casey, we always work on a contingency basis. This means that you don’t pay a thing until a financial recovery is made in your case. Please call or contact our office today to set up a consultation at no cost to you.

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