If your due date is weeks or even months away, you've probably got lots of time left to anticipate the happy day. However, for some women, delivery comes a lot sooner than they expect.
While health care for preemies is improving, taking steps to prevent preterm labor and its complications for your baby is vital. The causes of preterm labor aren't yet understood, but the latest research suggests that it may be triggered by the body's natural response to certain bacterial infections such as these:
- Vaginal infections. Studies suggest that a common infection called bacterial vaginosis (BV) may double a woman's chances of delivering prematurely. BV, which affects 12 to 22 percent of pregnant women, is caused by an overgrowth of bacteria that naturally occur in the vagina. Fortunately, a safe treatment that significantly lowers the rate of preterm delivery is available — talk to your doctor.
- Infection of the fetal membranes. Studies have shown that any bacterial infection affecting the amniotic fluid and fetal membranes can increase your risk for delivering prematurely. Once diagnosed, however, these infections can be treated with antibiotics that are safe for mother and baby.
- Periodontal (gum) disease. A small 1996 study from the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry reported that women who had severe periodontal disease faced a sevenfold increase in their risk of preterm delivery. While more studies are needed to confirm this, researchers speculate that the infection may prompt the production of hormone-like substances that trigger labor. Unfortunately, the treatments for periodontal disease aren't recommended for pregnant women. If you have any signs of gum disease — bleeding gums, a receding gumline, or loose teeth — your dentist should be able to advise you on proper dental care during pregnancy.
Warning Signs for Premature Labor
Contact your doctor if any of these signs of preterm labor occur before 37 weeks' gestation:
- Uterine contractions that become more painful, happen every 10 minutes or less, come at regular intervals (for example, every 12 minutes), and/or are increasingly closer together
- Menstrual-like cramps in your lower abdomen that may come and go or be constant
- Pelvic pressure that comes and goes and makes it feel like the baby is pushing down
- Low, dull backache below your waist that may come and go or be constant
- Vaginal discharge that suddenly increases in amount or becomes watery, tinged with blood, or full of mucus
While prematurity is common, there are a number of steps you and your doctor can take to prevent it or lessen its complications in your baby. And the prognosis for the littlest infants seems to get better all the time.