Skip directly to search Skip directly to A to Z list Skip directly to navigation Skip directly to page options Skip directly to site content

National Prematurity Awareness Month

What is Premature Birth?

Map Graphic: 1 of every 8 babies is born premature each year in the United StatesIt is a birth that is at least three weeks before a baby's due date. It is also known as preterm birth (or less than 37 weeks—full term is 40 weeks). Important growth and development occur throughout pregnancy—especially in the final months and weeks.

The earlier a baby is born, the more severe his or her health problems are likely to be. Although babies born very preterm are a small percentage of all births, these very preterm infants account for a large proportion of infant deaths. More infants die from preterm-related problems than from any other single cause. Some premature babies require special care and spend weeks or months hospitalized in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Those who survive may face lifelong problems such as—

Risk Factors

Photo: Father holding baby's feetEven if a woman does everything "right" during pregnancy, she still can have a premature baby. There are some known risk factors for premature birth. For example, one risk factor is having a previous preterm birth. Additionally, although most black women give birth at term, on average, black women are about 50% more likely to have a premature baby compared to white women. The reasons for the difference between black and white women remain unknown and are an area of intense research.

The other known risk factors are—

Premature Birth: What to Know

Doctors sometimes need to deliver a baby early because of concerns for the health of the mother or the baby. An early delivery should only be considered when there is a medical reason to do so. If a pregnant woman is healthy and the pregnancy is progressing well, it is best to let the baby come naturally, on his or her own time.

Although most babies born just a few weeks early do well and have no health issues, some do have more health problems than full term babies. For example, a baby born at 35 weeks is more likely to have—

  • Jaundice
  • Breathing problems.
  • A longer hospital stay.

What Can I Do?

Photo: Toy blocksThere are things that women can do to improve their health, lower the risk of having a premature baby, and help their baby be healthy. These include—

  • Quit smoking and avoid alcohol or drugs.
  • See your health care provider for a medical checkup before pregnancy. Get prenatal care as soon as you think you may be pregnant, and throughout your pregnancy.
  • Talk to your health care provider about—
    • How to best control diseases such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
    • A healthy diet and prenatal vitamins. It is important to take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily before and during early pregnancy.
    • Concerns about pregnancy and any warning signs or symptoms of preterm labor that will need medical attention.
    • The use of 17 alpha hydroxyprogesterone caproate (17P) if you had a previous preterm birth.
    • Breastfeeding. Breast milk is the best food for babies, whether they are born early or at term.

Warning Signs of Preterm Labor

In most cases, preterm labor begins unexpectedly and with no known cause. It’s important to seek care if you think you might be having preterm labor, because your doctor may be able to help you and your baby.

The warning signs are—

  • Contractions (the abdomen tightens like a fist) every 10 minutes or more often.
  • Change in vaginal discharge (leaking fluid or bleeding from the vagina).
  • Pelvic pressure—the feeling that the baby is pushing down.
  • Low, dull backache.
  • Cramps that feel like a menstrual period.
  • Abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea.

Birth is a complex and wonderful process. Fortunately, the outcome for most women is a full term, healthy baby. More research still is needed to understand the risk factors for premature birth, such as how family history, genetics, infections, race and ethnicity, nutrition, and environment may work together to put some women at greater risk for a premature delivery.

More Information

March of Dimes Resources

  • Prematurity Campaign
    More information about premature birth and the March of Dimes prematurity campaign.
  • Share Your Story (Spanish language online community also available)
    Virtual community for parents with a baby in a neonatal intensive care unit.
  • Preterm Labor
    More information about signs of preterm labor, and includes common questions and answers.
  • Page last reviewed: October 29, 2013
  • Page last updated: October 29, 2013
  • Content source:
    • Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Digital Media Branch, Division of Public Affairs
    • Page maintained by: Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Digital Media Branch, Division of Public Affairs
Top