A baby that is born before 37 weeks is considered early (or premature). Depending on when your baby is born, he or she may need some extra help to breathe and stay well. Around 8 out of 100 babies will be born prematurely.
If it is likely that you might go into early labour, you may be offered a stitch in your cervix or a small pessary tablet which has hormones in it to prevent early labour. A pessary goes inside your vagina.
It is not always known why babies are born early. If you go into labour before 37 weeks, your midwife and the obstetric team will offer you checks, tests and monitoring. These can include a vaginal examination, blood and urine tests and a CTG (cardiotocography) to monitor your baby’s heart rate before and during labour.
If your waters break before 37 weeks gestation (known as preterm pre-labour rupture of membranes, or P-PROM) then you will be offered tests for infection and antibiotics to reduce the risk of infection. You might be asked to stay in hospital for monitoring. You won’t always go into labour if waters break early. You may be offered steroid injections to help protect your baby’s lungs and help them mature if it is likely your baby will be born early.
If you are in premature labour, your obstetric team may offer you medicine to slow down your labour. However, depending on how far along you are in your pregnancy and your medical circumstances, it may be safer for your baby to be born. You may be offered steroid injections to help protect your baby’s lungs and help them mature if it is likely your baby will be born early. Depending on which hospital you are at and what stage of pregnancy you are in, it might be necessary to move you to another hospital. This might be needed to make sure your baby can have the best care in the right unit when he or she is born.
When it looks like your baby will be born early (before 30 weeks) your team may offer you magnesium sulphate. This can help protect your baby from some of the problems with brain development that can affect babies born early.
Babies born from 24 weeks onwards can survive, but the earlier your baby is born, the more vulnerable they are to problems. Babies born before 30 weeks can be at risk of cerebral palsy, and medication may be given during premature labour via a drip to reduce this risk.
Babies who are born early will often need to go to a neonatal unit and not all hospitals have these specialist units within them, so you may need to be transferred in labour. Sometimes, babies will be transferred to different units after birth. Very premature babies can need specialist care in a unit for several weeks before they are strong enough to go home.
Increasingly, parents are encouraged to get involved in caring for babies in a specialist unit. Talk to the team about ways you can be involved and ask about skin to skin contact with your baby.