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What is preterm labour and what causes it?

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? Here are five things to consider.

3 mins to read Nov 13, 2020

1. What is preterm labour?

A baby needs around 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 preterm, or premature, birth. Preterm babies may not be fully developed and may need special care, and stay longer in hospital.

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 risk factors that may increase the chances of giving birth early. These include:

  • If you’ve previously given birth to a premature baby,
  • If you’re expecting multiples like twins or triplets,
  • pre-existing or gestational diabetes, and
  • Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.

There are also medical conditions before and during pregnancy that can increase the risk of premature labour. If you are concerned you are at risk of a premature labour, discuss this with your healthcare professional.

3. A healthy lifestyle for preventing preterm labour

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

  • Being overweight or underweight can increase your risk, so try to get to, and stick to, a healthy weight before and during pregnancy.
  • Follow a healthy diet— meeting your nutritional needs during pregnancy is super important. Your healthcare professional can help you determine whether you need to take a prenatal vitamin supplement before and during pregnancy to help ensure you’re meeting your body’s vitamin and mineral needs. Some key nutrients before and during pregnancy include folic acid, iodine, omega-3 DHA and iron.
  • Don’t smoke, drink alcohol or take drugs.
  • Do something every day to keep your body active.
  • 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.
  • And last but not least, do what you can to reduce stress in your life.

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 by your healthcare professional that you’re more at risk of having a preterm labour 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 will be able to 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 stress and give you back a sense of control.

5. Planning to get pregnant again? Don’t rush into it

Your body needs time to recover from giving birth. If you’ve given birth already, especially to a preterm baby, and are planning another baby, getting pregnant too early may increase the risk of having a preterm labour. If you’re an older mum or have had a miscarriage or still birth, 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.