An estimated 390,000 babies are born each year across Canada. While the average gestation period that is required in order for a baby to fully grow and develop is 40 weeks, there are cases where babies are born at less than 37 weeks. This is referred to as premature or preterm birth, which accounts for approximately 7.8% of births in the country. On a global scale, an estimated 15 million babies are born prematurely, with over a million of them not surviving. While there have been many strides made over the years in terms of survival rates in babies born under 37 weeks and with doctors being able to do more to delay early births, North America (the United States, in particular) is still considered to have one of the highest rates of preterm birth compared to other parts of the world.
Whether you’ve experienced preterm birth firsthand or know someone who has, it can be a scary time. Babies that are born early are at a greater risk of developing many different health issues, including respiratory problems (such as not being able to breathe on their own and needing a ventilator), problems with feeding (sometimes requiring the use of a feeding tube), as well as brain bleeds, necrotizing enterocolitis (a condition that affects the bowels), as well as retinopathy of prematurity (an eye disease that can lead to blindness), and more.
In some cases, the reason why a woman may go into preterm labour is unknown. However, there can also be many different causes as to why, including whether or not you are a smoker, drink alcohol or use drugs during pregnancy, are either overweight or underweight, as well as if you have certain health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, blood clotting disorders, preeclampsia, as well as recurring infections.
There are many symptoms that are associated with preterm labour, though they can often mimic normal symptoms of pregnancy. Still, it’s important to be aware of the warning signs. Common signs and symptoms of preterm labour include lower backache (that does not ease upon trying things for comfort – it can, however, be constant or come and go), contractions that occur every 10 minutes or more often, lower abdominal cramping (similar to menstrual cramps), leakage of fluid from the vagina and increased vaginal discharge, feelings of increased pressure in the vagina or pelvic area, vaginal bleeding, nausea, vomiting, and even diarrhea. As mentioned, contractions are a common sing that you could be going into labour. During a contraction, you will feel your uterus tightening and softening. The closer together your contractions are and the longer those contractions last, the more likely it is that you are in labour. It’s also important to make note of how frequent your contractions are by making note of them on a piece of paper.
Following a preterm birth, it’s not uncommon for parents and families to experience a wide range of emotions, including guilt and depression, as well as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) – and these are feelings that can last for a long period of time. Furthermore, these feelings can be exacerbated as a result of not knowing what to expect. For example, children that are born early may later develop things such as learning disabilities and behavioural issues that may not be easily detectible upon birth nor upon discharge from the hospital. If you are noticing any changes or abnormalities with your child’s ability to learn or with their behaviour, then you should bring this up with both your family physician as well as your child’s paediatrician, as they will be able to make certain recommendations and refer your child to a specialist if necessary.