Birth can be one of the most joyous and exciting moments for parents, but despite advances in maternal care, there are still many women who experience premature birth.

Annually, more than 15 million babies are born prematurely around the world, and prematurity is the No. 1 cause of death in newborns. Infants born prematurely may face breathing difficulties and vision problems, and they are at risk for cerebral palsy and intellectual delays as they grow older.

As experts, we don’t always know the reasons why some babies are born earlier than planned. Even if a pregnant woman follows all of the medical recommendations, she still can have a premature birth. That’s why pregnant women, or women who are considering pregnancy, should know what resources are available in their communities to care for premature babies, such as neonatal intensive care units. For example, in Northern Virginia, the partnership between Virginia Hospital Center and Children’s National allows neonatal patients in Northern Virginia to have access to pediatric subspecialty services at Children’s National so babies and their mothers can stay together in their own community when that level of care is needed.

According to the March of Dimes, some of the risk factors for premature birth include the following:

  • Teenage pregnancy
  • Women over the age of 35
  • Low socioeconomic position
  • Health behaviors
  • Tobacco use
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Low or high body mass index
  • Mental health (stress, anxiety, depression)
  • Pregnancy and health history
  • Fertility treatments

Even when a pregnant woman’s lifestyle doesn’t fall under any of the risk factors listed above, her baby can still be born prematurely. However, there are some general guidelines women can follow to keep themselves and their babies as healthy as possible during pregnancy:

Stay physically active: Working out during pregnancy can boost energy and also reduce the risk of developing conditions like diabetes or pre-eclampsia, a potentially dangerous complication characterized by high blood pressure.

Address mental health: There seems to be a correlation between stress and depression and premature birth, so women should pay attention to this and address any concerns.

Check before taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs: Check if medication is safe to use during pregnancy before taking it. Even some over-the-counter pain killers, including ibuprofen, are not recommended.

Avoid smoking, alcohol and recreational drugs: These substances can harm the developing fetus and lead to premature labor.

Protect yourself from infection: Wash your hands and get the flu shot to guard against infections that may harm you and the developing fetus.

Find more information about prematurity and resources for pregnant women at the March of Dimes website.

This blog post originally appeared in Northern Virginia Magazine online. Please find the story here.


Brian Stone Brian Stone, MD, MBA, is a board certified neonatologist at Children's National. He is the Division Chief of Pediatric Outreach Center of Hospital-Based Specialties and also specializes in neonatal ECMO.

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