Knowing your risks can help prevent preterm labor.
Getting pregnant is usually reason for great optimism. It’s the opportunity to bring new life into the world, express the joy of a committed relationship and fulfill a lifelong goal (if it’s part of your plan).
Every pregnancy is life-changing. While being pregnant certainly isn’t easy, most pregnancies are completed just as nature intended, with delivery as expected and everyone healthy. However, every now and then, things don’t quite go according to plan. Sometimes, your new baby will be in a rush to get into the world, and be born prematurely, which can cause some health issues.
“Premature birth can be a serious concern,” says Dr. Eric Hodgson, maternal-fetal medicine (high-risk pregnancy) specialist at Geisinger. “When a baby is born prematurely, he or she may face short-term problems like having trouble regulating body temperature, breathing problems, bleeding in the brain and low blood pressure, or long-term problems like developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy, vision problems and other lifelong chronic health issues.”
Premature birth rates have been on the rise in recent years. Some experts point to fertility treatments and the fact that many women have children at an older age and have more medical problems that can complicate pregnancy when they become pregnant later in life. However, there are other less-known causes of premature birth.
Here are three causes you may not have heard of:
1. Poor nutrition before and during pregnancy
It is important to prepare for pregnancy by having a healthy body mass index (BMI). Premature birth risk can be increased in both mothers who are obese and mothers who are underweight. Dietary counseling is advised in women who are trying to conceive to help them reach a healthy BMI with diet and lifestyle changes.
When you’re pregnant, your baby gets nutrients from what you eat. But babies have different nutritional needs than adults, and making sure that your baby gets enough nutrients can help prevent premature birth.
Folic acid is an important supplement for brain and central nervous system development in babies, and as most know, it can help prevent spina bifida. Folic acid can also help decrease the risk for other pregnancy complications like placental abruption and preeclampsia — two conditions responsible for about 20 percent of indicated premature births. Babies with birth defects are also at risk for preterm delivery.
Folic acid can be found in vitamin supplements as well as foods like:
However, since it’s most important to get folic acid in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy during the formation of the fetal central nervous system (and other major organ systems), women should start taking prenatal vitamins daily or a daily multivitamin containing folic acid for at least three months before pregnancy. Supplements can help your baby get enough folic acid in the critical first month.
As soon as you find out you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor about how your diet and nutrition should change and ways to achieve a healthy BMI.
2. Certain infections
It’s long been known that sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea or chlamydia can increase someone’s risk for preterm labor. Untreated urinary tract infections can also increase a woman’s risk for preterm delivery, so routine prenatal care is recommended as early as possible in pregnancy.
“When you get an infection, your body sends out chemical messengers,” says Dr. Hodgson. “This is normal and part of a healthy immune system. However, when you’re pregnant, these chemical messengers that create the inflammation response are the same ones that can trigger contractions and sometimes preterm birth.”
If you have or think you have an infection, talk to your doctor about getting it treated. If you’re prone to certain infections, ask your doctor about ways that you can prevent future infections.
3. Poor dental hygiene
When you find out you’re pregnant, the last thought that may cross your mind is, “I better go see my dentist!” But studies show that gum disease and other dental problems are associated with preterm delivery.
“Aside from routine dental cleanings, it’s important for expectant mothers and women who are considering getting pregnant to brush twice every day and floss after every meal,” says Dr. Hodgson. “Good oral hygiene can reduce the amount of inflammation in your body before you become pregnant, which may improve your chances of having a healthy pregnancy.”
Talk to your dentist about your risk of gum disease and what you can do to prevent it. It’s likely that gum disease is similar to infections when it comes to premature birth. The inflammation from gum disease releases the same chemical messengers, which may explain the link to premature birth.
If you’re concerned about your health or having a premature birth, talk with your doctor. He or she can assess your current health status and suggest preventive measures to help lower your risk.