Healthy You - Every Day

Premature Birth: Know the Facts

Knowing the risk factors and what to look for in a birth center can take a major weight off your shoulders

Welcoming a new baby is a wonderful part of life. However, while you and your family are excited about this new addition, you may also be concerned about things going smoothly and carrying your baby to term.

While many expecting families know about premature birth, you may have some questions about how prevalent it is, what the risk factors are and what you can do to improve the likelihood that you will carry your pregnancy to term.

To answer those and other key questions about prematurity, we spoke with neonatologist Wendy Kowalski, MD, Chief of Neonatology and Medical Director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Lehigh Valley Reilly Children's Hospital.

“Our specialists work collaboratively to optimize long-term outcomes, and we are dedicated to supporting you and your family from the minute you come into our care.” - Wendy Kowalski, MD

What is premature birth?

“Premature births are those that occur before the 37th week of pregnancy,” Dr. Kowalski says. “About one in every 10 babies are born prematurely, and prematurity is one of the leading causes of death of babies in the United States. Unfortunately, these statistics have not significantly improved over the last few years.”

What are the short- and long-term effects of premature birth on children?

Premature birth can have many short- and long-term effects, including:

  • Lower infant survival rate (especially if born before 34 weeks)
  • Chronic lung disease and the need for home oxygen
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Functional disabilities
  • Learning disabilities
  • Difficulty getting proper nutrients (leading to insufficient growth)
  • Visual impairment
  • Blindness

“There is an increased risk for developmental and functional impairments in children who are born premature, ranging from mild to severe. In fact, more than 75 percent of babies that are born prematurely experience some sort of developmental or functional disability, even if it’s mild,” Dr. Kowalski says. “The key to managing these conditions is continued care and referrals to appropriate specialists, including neonatologists, pulmonologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and ophthalmologists, as well as referral to the Early Intervention program.”

What causes premature birth?

While there are some known risk factors, there are many unknown reasons why babies are born prematurely.

Some of the risk factors we know of include:

  • A history of premature birth
  • Being pregnant with multiples
  • Tobacco or drug use
  • Having a baby less than 18 months after a previous pregnancy
  • Pregnancy complications, including preterm premature rupture of membranes, uterine abnormalities and problems with the placenta or cervix
  • Conditions affecting the mother, especially infections, heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure and diabetes

Non-Hispanic black women also have a much higher risk for premature birth than non-Hispanic white women and Hispanic women.

What should you look for when choosing a place of birth?

When deciding where to give birth, expecting mothers often look to hospitals that are close to their home and have reputable maternity services.

While these factors are important, it's also helpful to identify hospitals with highly rated neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) and follow-up programs, especially if you are at high risk for giving birth prematurely.

Advanced care at Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN)

At Lehigh Valley Health Network, we offer advanced prenatal, maternal fetal medicine and neonatology services for mothers and babies.

In addition to offering the highest level NICU care in the region at our level IV NICU at Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital at Lehigh Valley Hospital–Cedar Crest, we also offer leading-edge care for your newborn at the Level III NICU at Lehigh Valley Hospital–Pocono and at the Level II NICU at Lehigh Valley Hospital–Muhlenberg.

Our neonatologists, pediatric surgeons and maternal fetal medicine physicians also meet monthly to discuss and develop plans for upcoming high-risk births, and our Children’s Hospital has a specialized clinic for preterm babies that follows them until age 3, allowing continued management of any conditions or disabilities caused by their early birth.

“At Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital, we take a family-centered collaborative approach to care and have a full team always ready to support mothers and their babies,” Dr. Kowalski says. “Our specialists work collaboratively to optimize long-term outcomes, and we are dedicated to supporting you and your family from the minute you come into our care.”


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