Learn more about the surprising risks of preterm birth.
November is Prematurity Awareness Month, dedicated to raising awareness of the 400,000 babies born every year in the US before the normal 37-40 weeks of pregnancy. Premature birth is the leading cause of infant death, and survivors can have short and long-term health problems, including underdeveloped immune systems and delayed milestones.
Simi Suri, D.O., OB/GYN, a specialist in high-risk pregnancies at White Plains Hospital, shares some of the common causes of prematurity and how to prevent it:
Periodontal disease, a condition in which bacteria attacks the gums and around teeth, is linked to premature labor. One explanation is that oral pathogens could make their way through the body to uterus, provoking an inflammatory response that induces the premature birth process, according to research. For that reason, women should make sure their oral health is in tip-top shape before they become pregnant. “It’s best to avoid major dental work during pregnancy, especially if you have gum problems,” Dr. Suri says. “You don’t want to risk stirring up bacteria that might find its way to your baby, triggering early labor.”
Dr. Suri says that recurrent bladder, kidney, urinary tract and vaginal infections (including those from sexually transmitted diseases) all increase the risk of babies being born too soon. “During prenatal visits, doctors will take urine samples and cultures to monitor for infections, since not all will produce noticeable symptoms,” says Dr. Suri. For women who present with signs or symptoms of preterm labor, a fetal fibronectin swab may be performed to detect for a protein in the vaginal secretions. A positive result indicates a disruption between the outermost membrane of the embryo and the uterus, possibly from an infection, which points to an increased risk of early birth.
A balanced, nutritious diet both during pregnancy – and before – helps to prevent preterm labor. One study found that women who ate poorly before they got pregnant had a 50% higher chance of preterm labor and birth than those who ate healthily. “In addition to taking your prenatal vitamins, which have plenty of folic acid to prevent birth defects, you want to eat a balanced diet from every food group, with protein and carbs,” Dr. Suri says. “Pregnancy is not the time to be on keto or another trendy, restrictive diet."
BMI (Body Mass Index)
Too much or too little weight is not directly associated with having a premature birth. But health conditions that come with them sometimes are, explains Dr. Suri. For instance, a low BMI could indicate poor nutrition, which means lack of nutrients and minerals needed to sustain the baby’s proper development and delivery. A high BMI is often associated with diabetes, and the complications of elevated blood sugar can increase the risk of an early birth. In general, women should try to gain 25 to 35 pounds over duration of the pregnancy.
Practicing good wellness and awareness is the best way to ensure a full and healthy delivery. Visit the CDC’s website for more information on premature birth, risks, and resources.