An estimated 15 million babies are born premature each year worldwide; and in Canada, it is estimated that there are as many as 390,000 preterm births. When a baby is born preterm, this means that they are born at less than 37 weeks of gestation. Thanks to new technology, the latest research and new medical discoveries being made, the survival rate of premature babies has increased exponentially. However, that’s not to say that being born preterm isn’t still without risks – as there are many complications that can arise as a result both at birth and even later in life as the child develops into their teenage and adult years. Those complications are also do not just occur in the child, but can also occur in the mother, as there are several different factors that can contribute to why a baby may be born prematurely.
The most common and most frequent reason why a premature birth occurs is due to a rupture of the fetal membrane. This is usually due to what’s known as a placental abruption, which tends to happen around 25 weeks of pregnancy, in which the placenta suddenly separates (either partially or completely) from the uterus, thus initiating labour. This can not only cause a decrease and/or blockage of the baby’s supply of oxygen and essential nutrients, but the mother may also develop heavy bleeding as a result.
Signs and symptoms of a placental abruption can include things like vaginal bleeding, severe abdominal pain, back pain, uterine tenderness, contractions, as well as a feeling of firmness in the uterus and/or abdomen. In some cases, blood can become trapped in the uterus and there may be no visible bleeding – while in other cases, there may be light and/or intermittent bleeding. In this case, the placental abruption has developed slowly in what’s known as “chronic abruption.” As for what causes a placental abruption, there are several different risk factors. These risk factors can include having high blood pressure, infection, unhealthy lifestyle habits such as smoking or drug use during pregnancy, trauma to the abdomen (caused by a fall, for example), as well as age (i.e. being over the age of 40.)
A placental abruption can be life-threatening for both the mother and baby. A mother can go into shock due to loss of blood, have problems with blood clotting, develop organ failure (i.e. kidney failure), may require a blood transfusion, and in some cases may require a hysterectomy if the uterine bleeding cannot be easily controlled; while a baby could be stillborn, may have brain problems due to not getting enough oxygen, or have restricted growth due to not getting enough nutrients.
There are also other short-term and long-term effects that can occur due to premature births. For example, a preterm baby will often require a longer stay in hospital in what’s known as the NICU It’s also not uncommon for preterm infants to have problems with breathing and require the use of ventilators, while they can also develop bleeding on the brain. As for long-term effects, preterm babies may develop things like cerebral palsy, mental problems, impairment in both vision and/or hearing, growth problems, and poor overall health, along with behaviour and social/emotional issues, learning difficulties, and conditions such as ADHD. It’s also not uncommon for those born prematurely to develop chronic disease as adults, which can include things like heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension.