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What is preterm labour and can you help reduce the risks?

Having a preterm labour or premature birth can be especially worrying if you’re expecting a baby. But what is preterm labour? What causes premature birth? And can you minimize the risks of having one? Here are five things to consider.

4 mins to read Nov 13, 2022

1. What is preterm labour?

A baby needs around 37-40 weeks in the womb to grow and develop. If you go into labour before 37 weeks, then it’s called a preterm labour. And if your baby is born before 37 weeks, then it’s called a premature birth. In Australia, about 9% of all babies are born prematurely.  Because premature babies—sometimes known as ‘premmie’ babies—may not be fully developed, they may need special care.

2. What are the causes of and risk factors for preterm labour?

It’s not always possible to know what causes a preterm labour, but there are some known risk factors that make the chances of giving birth early more likely. They may include:

  • If you’ve previously given birth to a premature baby,
  • if you’re expecting multiples like twins or triplets,
  • or you have diabetes.

There are also medical conditions before and during pregnancy that can increase the risk of premature labour, as well as factors to do with age, race, and lifestyle. Your obstetrician or midwife will be able to help you identify any risks you may have of a preterm labour.

3. A healthy lifestyle for reducing your risk of preterm labour

Many lifestyle factors can have an impact on the risks of having a premature labour:

  • Being overweight or underweight can both increase your risk, so try to get to a healthy weight before and during pregnancy.
    • Follow a healthy diet—you might also want to take a prenatal vitamin before and during pregnancy to make sure you’re meeting your body’s vitamin and mineral needs, particularly folic acid. For more advice on what to eat during pregnancy, read our article.
    • Do something every day to keep your body active. Have a look at how much pregnancy exercise is recommended in each pregnancy trimester in our article.
  • Don’t smoke, drink alcohol or take drugs.
  • Seek out good prenatal care and address any chronic health conditions you may have early on.
  • Protect yourself as much as you can from infections.
  • Last but not least, do what you can to reduce stress in your life. Read our checklist self-care tips for anxiety in pregnancy for some helpful tips.

Following these steps will give you and your baby the best start for pregnancy and beyond.

4. If you’re at risk of a preterm labour: what you can do

If you’ve been told you’re more at risk of having a preterm labour, or if you’re concerned that you might be, speak with your healthcare professional. They may want to monitor you and your baby more closely for issues with your baby’s development and/or signs of preterm labour so that they can treat you accordingly.

They may also suggest lifestyle changes you could make to help minimise the risk of going into early labour. Taking steps like informing yourself through trustworthy sources, getting support from organisations that focus on premature birth, taking an online tour of a neo-natal unit, and preparing yourself for hospital and the practical considerations of feeding a premature baby can all help reduce anxiety and give you back a sense of control.

Read our article on kangaroo care and how to take care of your preterm baby to learn about the importance of skin-to-skin contact between parents and premature babies and how it can help with both feeding and bonding.

5. Planning to get pregnant again? 

If you’ve recently experienced a premature labour and are planning another baby, speak to your healthcare professional about how long it would be best to wait before trying to get pregnant again.

This information should never replace your usual medical care or advice. If you are worried about having a premature labour or birth it can help to get information about this in advance from your trusted healthcare professional.

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