Premature birth or preterm babies

Some babies arrive earlier than expected or are too sick to cope on their own. If this happens to your baby, you may not be able to take her home with you. Instead, your baby might need the special care of the neonatal (new born) unit or children’s hospital.

When your baby arrives early

Preterm labour is generally defined as labour beginning before the 37th week of pregnancy. Over the last few years, babies born early have had a greater chance of surviving and developing without any long-term problems. The outlook for a preterm baby is affected by several things:

  • the number of weeks you are pregnant. The older the baby is the better the chances of survival
  • the baby’s size. Bigger babies usually have a better chance of survival, as long as they are healthy in other ways
  • whether the baby has any birth abnormality
  • the availability of specialist care.

Why are some babies born early?

It’s not always known why women go into labour early. Some possible reasons include:

  • infection in the mother
  • conditions such as pre-eclampsia
  • more than one baby – most twins and triplets are born before 38 weeks, many sooner than this because the uterus starts to contract when it is overstretched
  • weakness in the cervix.

If your labour starts early, you will either realise the membranes have ruptured (your waters will ‘break’) or you will start to feel contractions. If you suspect you are in labour, or if you are bleeding, call the hospital straight away.

It may be possible to slow down or even stop your labour. Drugs that stop you having contractions may give your baby more time in the uterus. You may also be given treatment to prevent your baby being born with respiratory distress syndrome, a condition that seriously affects breathing.

Occasionally, a mother may be told that she needs to have her labour induced (started early) because she has a condition that threatens her health or her baby’s health if the pregnancy continues. Sometimes the baby may have a better chance of survival outside the uterus (visit the section on your due date for more information on induction).

Bliss is an organisation which provides vital support and care to premature and sick babies across the UK. Phone their free helpline on 0500 618140 or visit the Bliss website.

Last Updated: 27 October 2010
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