About Preterm Birth Fact Sheet

What is "term"?

A term is a defined period of time for which limits have been set. Human pregnancy lasts for a term of about 40 weeks, or 280 days from the date of the woman's last menstrual period. This is the amount of time it takes for the human baby to grow and mature and be ready to survive outside of the mother's womb (the period of "gestation"). We often think of it as nine months, but it is actually a little longer than nine calendar months. A full-term pregnancy is about 40 weeks.

Are "preterm" and "premature" the same thing?

Preterm and premature both mean that a baby is born too early, before 37 weeks of pregnancy. A preterm or premature baby has not had time to fully grow.

  • Late preterm infants are born between 34 and 36 weeks of gestation
  • Very preterm infants are born at less than 32 weeks of gestation.
  • Extremely preterm infants are born at less than 28 weeks of gestation

Why is preterm birth a problem?

Prematurity is the number one cause of newborn deaths in this country and around the world. All babies who are born preterm have an increased risk of dying. However, with the advances in technology and neonatal intensive care units, most premature babies today survive. Still, they are at increased risk for both immediate and ongoing problems, some of which are quite significant. The babies who are most premature are likely to have the most serious problems. All preterm infants have a higher risk of problems, and a higher risk of death than infants born at full term. That does not mean that all preterm infants have problems, but they are more likely to have problems than babies born at full term.

Who is likely to have a preterm infant?

Preterm birth can happen to any pregnant woman and may have no warning signs.  

The best predictor for who will have a preterm birth is previously delivering a preterm baby. Family history of preterm births is also important. Other factors that help us predict who is at higher risk for preterm birth include multiple births (twins or more) and women with a uterine or cervical abnormality (DES exposure, fibroids, uterine septum).

What other things make preterm birth more likely?

Medical factors  

  • Infections - urinary tract infections, vaginal infections, sexually transmitted diseases and possibly other infections
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Clotting disorders
  • Bleeding from the vagina
  • Certain birth defects in the baby
  • Mother who is very overweight or very underweight
  • Short time between pregnancies

Lifestyle factors  

  • Late or no prenatal care
  • Smoking during pregnancy
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Using illegal drugs
  • Domestic violence
  • Lack of social support
  • Stress

Is preterm birth a problem in Kentucky?

Yes. In Kentucky, one in every seven babies is born preterm, a higher rate than the national average. These babies have an increased risk of dying and are more likely to have health problems, developmental delays and behavior problems. The initial hospital charges for preterm babies in Kentucky were $204 million in 2005. That doesn't count the costs to the health care system or education system later in life, not to mention the stress on the families.

Sometimes babies must be delivered early to protect their health or their mothers' health. This can happen even when an expectant mother has done everything "right." Such decisions must be made by women and their health care providers on an individual basis.

What can be done about preterm birth in Kentucky?

Many things can help lower the rates of preterm birth in Kentucky:

  • Helping pregnant women stop smoking.
  • Encouraging women to get healthy before pregnancy.
  • Helping everyone in the community understand the problems of preterm birth.
  • Learning about the important brain development that occurs in the last few weeks of pregnancy.
  • Avoiding delivering before the due date for non-medical reasons or convenience.
  • Avoiding Cesarean delivery unless it is medically necessary.
  • Getting early treatment for any type of infection during pregnancy.
  • Encouraging families to space their pregnancies at least 18-24 months apart.
  • Helping pregnant women avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Supporting pregnant women socially and emotionally.
  • Encouraging pregnant women to seek early prenatal care.
  • Providing case management and prenatal education.

Healthy Babies Are Worth the Wait® is a multifaceted partnership of the March of Dimes, the Johnson & Johnson Pediatric Institute and the Kentucky Department for Public Health. The primary goal of the initiative is a 15 percent reduction in the rate of "preventable" single preterm births - particularly babies born late preterm (four to six weeks early) - in three targeted intervention sites in Kentucky: King's Daughters Medical Center in Ashland, Trover Health System Regional Medical Center of Hopkins County and the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital in Lexington. Health care teams at each site provide mothers-to-be with an integrated approach of education, counseling and clinical care.

For more information

Kentucky Children's Hospital is the only hospital in central Kentucky that offers a Level IV NICU to care for the tiniest babies.

Call 1-800-333-8874 or visit the following sites:

Prematurity Prevention 
March of Dimes 
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Page last updated: 12/29/2016 12:15:53 PM