Finding out you are pregnant can be an overwhelming experience. A range of emotions is reasonably expected. When the joy or stress of the condition finally sinks in, there’s a chance that panic comes after.
Most women share common fears involving neonatal health – and preterm labor leading to premature birth is a significant part of this concern.
Normally, pregnancy lasts for 40 weeks. After this period, pregnant women are bound to go through labor to deliver their newborns. But some women can undergo labor earlier than 37 weeks. When this happens, the infant’s health is jeopardized, and in some cases, so is the mother’s health.
Nonetheless, you would be relieved to know that you can take some actions to prevent premature birth. A critical one is understanding the maternal health conditions that influence preterm labor and premature birth.
If you’re curious about how to avoid or manage these health conditions, read on, and find out.
What Is Preterm Labor and Premature Birth?
Preterm labor refers to labor that begins earlier than 37 weeks of pregnancy. It is pretty much understood that once a mother goes through labor, it’s a sign that the baby is about to be delivered.
During labor, the woman’s cervix starts to open up, and contractions occur, which induce pain and pressure. When preterm labor happens, abdominal cramps become intense, and you may feel nauseated. It can also be accompanied by digestive distress or diarrhea.
Once preterm labor ensues, premature birth is inevitable. Unfortunately, babies born prematurely or preemies are susceptible to the following conditions and complications:
- Heart conditions
- Low birth weight
- Kidney problems
- Hearing problems
- Breathing problems
- Poor vision and eye problems
- Impaired cognitive functions and brain problems
The mortality rate for a premature baby depends on the length of pregnancy or how early the mother gave birth. For example, preemies born around the 28th week have a survival rate of about 90% to 95%, while those born at 23 weeks only have a survival rate ranging from 15% to 17%.
How Prevalent Is Preterm Birth in the US?
According to the CDC, 1 in 10 babies are preemies or were born prematurely in 2020. Furthermore, the March of Dimes reported a decline of 0.1% in the number of premature births in the same year. March of Dimes is a nonprofit organization committed to maternal and neonatal health.
Although the slight decrease is a considerable win for the condition, some highlighted parts of the report also rang a cause for concern. For example, the rate of preterm birth increased by 7.8% among African Americans and 11.1% among Native Americans.
There are several factors associated with these statistical results. Some are related to socioeconomic status, while others are linked to vulnerability to certain medical conditions.
Health Conditions that Influence Premature Birth
Pregnancy with diabetes is not an ideal mix. Nonetheless, women diagnosed with type 1 or type 2 diabetes can still carry a healthy full-term provided that the condition is adequately managed.
However, it still poses a risk for premature birth. According to a study published in Nature Reviews, diabetes developed prior to pregnancy or before the 24th week comes with higher susceptibility to preterm labor.
This is why your obstetrician will order a lab test for gestational diabetes, most likely between your second and third trimester.
Diabetes is a condition characterized by elevated blood sugar levels. Problems with insulin production or use can drive it.
- Inactive Lifestyle
- Pancreatic Problems
- Family History
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
In the case of gestational diabetes, insulin production and function are even more aggravated as the placenta produces hormones that lead to the accumulation of excessive glucose in the blood.
Unfortunately, there is a chance that gestational diabetes can become inevitable. However, for those who only experienced the condition during pregnancy, there is also a high likelihood that it will be gone postpartum.
Nevertheless, it is always safe to consult your doctor for specific actions against diabetes suitable for your condition. In the meantime, you can consider the following preventive measures provided that you get the green light from your OB.
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Include more fiber and lean protein in your diet
- Avoid junk foods and processed foods
- Doing regular exercise approved by your doctor
2. High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure or hypertension is known to cause several pregnancy complications, including preeclampsia, placental abruption, and preterm labor.
Unfortunately, there is no telling if you have high blood pressure unless you see your doctor and have it checked.
Hypertension is characterized by extra force or stress exerted on the blood vessels and critical organs. This can lead to stroke, kidney failure, and heart attack.
If you never had high blood pressure prior to pregnancy, you can still develop the condition.
The CDC reports that 1 in about 12 to 17 pregnant women have hypertension. This condition should not be taken lightly, considering the level of danger to both mother and fetus.
Hypertension can be caused by several factors, which involve unhealthy lifestyle choices.
For example, alcohol consumption is a big no-no during pregnancy. Part of the reason is that it leads to complications like hypertension.
Other factors associated with high blood pressure involve the following:
- Lack of exercise
- Age (35 and above)
- Multiple pregnancies
- Autoimmune diseases
- Family history of hypertension
- Assisted reproductive technology (ART)
Hypertension is highly preventable and treatable. But on rare occasions, they may need other forms of medical intervention. Nonetheless, if you make the right choice, you may as well avoid high blood pressure and the complications it comes with altogether.
Adopt a healthy lifestyle: Avoid foods high in trans fats, salt, sugar, and other unhealthy substances. Instead, go for a healthy diet and give up toxic habits such as smoking and alcohol consumption.
Stick to your prenatal checkup schedule: Going to your prenatal checkup regularly allows your healthcare provider or obstetrician to monitor your blood pressure. On top of that, your overall health, along with your baby, is properly screened.
Undergo a wellness checkup before or when you’re trying to conceive: When trying to have a baby, one of the key steps is to ensure that you and your partner are in optimum health. This way, you can prevent complications during pregnancy.
3. Heart Disease
Maternal heart disease can occur or exacerbate during pregnancy, given that the entire process can cause immense stress to the cardiovascular system. As heart disease aggravates, the risks for preterm labor increase leading to premature birth increase.
If a woman has been diagnosed with heart disease before pregnancy, health monitoring becomes even more vital. There is a chance that the condition will worsen, considering the rapid changes in the hormones, blood volume and composition, and heart rate.
On the other hand, you could also be pregnant without a prior heart condition and continue to develop one as the terms progress.
According to research, about 4% of pregnancies involve complications concerning heart health without a history of the disease.
The link between cardiovascular disorders and maternal health extends postpartum.
A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed that women who gave birth prematurely are 2.5 times more likely to develop heart disease than those who delivered a full-term pregnancy.
- Sedentary lifestyle
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Smoking and alcohol consumption
Apart from a healthy lifestyle, getting tested for lipid levels is another practical action you can take. Likewise, it is imperative to get the appropriate screening for other related health conditions.
Some practical things you can do include:
- Get enough sleep and rest
- Keep a healthy diet and optimum weight
- Check your medications and consult your doctor
- Always keep your prenatal appointment
- Stir clear from illegal drugs, caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol
4. Kidney Disease
Keeping your kidneys functional, especially during pregnancy, is a critical part of maintaining your health.
The National Kidney Foundation stressed that kidney disease accounts for a 52% rise in the risk for preterm labor and a ten times increase in premature births occurring as early as 20 weeks or less.
Chronic kidney disease can lead to conditions like preeclampsia, which induces preterm labor. This is why women suffering from kidney problems are advised to seek treatment first before pregnancy.
In some cases, your OB may ask you to consider ART involving in-vitro fertilization and surrogacy, especially if the condition involves kidney failure.
Having a kidney problem before and during pregnancy can endanger both you and your baby.
If you have a history of kidney disease, you should inform your OB during your first prenatal appointment, even more so if you have experienced a kidney transplant.
On the other hand, if you don’t have any history of the condition, kidney problems can still develop specifically if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure.
Renal disease prior to pregnancy is influenced by factors ranging from lifestyle to genetic disposition. If you wish to avoid high-risk pregnancy, seek the advice of your obstetrician. It is always best to ensure healthy kidneys before trying to conceive.
Once you are pregnant, make sure that your high blood pressure is under control.
Infections concerning your urinary and reproductive tract can lead to premature birth. The presence of pathogenic microorganisms can induce uterine contraction leading to preterm labor.
On top of that, when these infections are transmitted, they can endanger the fetus leading to life-threatening conditions and stillbirth.
Several bacteria and viruses can cause intrauterine infections. Most of them are contracted through the vaginal opening. Hence, you may experience symptoms such as unusual vaginal discharge and smell, itching, and painful urination.
On the other hand, urinary tract infections (UTIs) can also influence preterm delivery. This is why it is crucial to diagnose UTIs through a urine culture test at the onset of symptoms like pelvic pain, burning sensation during urination, cloudy urine, and pungent urine smell.
The most common means of intrauterine infection transmission is via unprotected sex. STDs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and herpes, along with UTIs, can still develop during pregnancies. Hence, getting tested for STD during pregnancy is essential.
Furthermore, exposure to a potential source of pathogens also leads to these types of infections.
Likewise, unregulated bacterial growth in the vagina can trigger an imbalance in the overall microbial population that protects the female reproductive system. This imbalance increases the risks for preterm labor.
Therefore, ensuring that proper microbial balance is achieved protects you at most.
- Get tested for STDs
- Ask for appropriate vaccinations
- Maintain a good hygiene
- Avoid undercooked meats and unpasteurized milk
- Avoid changing cat litter or direct exposure to animal wastes
What Other Factors Increase the Chances of Premature Birth?
Aside from the aforementioned medical conditions, other factors that increase the risks for preterm delivery or premature birth encompass the following:
- Uterine problems
- Prenatal negligence
- Multiple pregnancies
- Depression and anxiety
- History of premature labor
- Consumption of alcohol, illicit drugs, and tobacco
- Underage (below 18) and overage (above 35) pregnancies
Why Should You Be Concerned With Premature Birth?
Pregnant women should be concerned with the likelihood of premature birth, considering this condition has a higher mortality rate than survival rate depending on how early the delivery is.
But even if the infant is delivered closer to 37 or 40 weeks, the likelihood of birth abnormalities is high.
Cognitive functions are affected, which could impact the learning and mental development of the child. In addition, vital organ functions can be disrupted, leading to further complications.
Preemies have to stay longer in the hospital and fight for their life while compensating for the lost time in the uterus.
Naturally, the occurrence of premature birth can be too complex physically and emotionally for the entire family.
The Bottom Line
Medical conditions associated with preterm labor and premature birth have to be screened and regulated thereafter.
The best way to prevent these conditions from escalating to a life-threatening illness is through keeping regular consultations with your doctor. Likewise, lab testing for these medical issues is undeniably crucial.
Secure the proper blood tests to monitor your health and follow through with the recommended actions so you can prevent disorders like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, kidney disease, and infections.