It’s a fact that more than a staggering 60,000 babies a year are born prematurely in the UK.  Prematurity is something that every pregnant mother considers and hopes to avoid, particularly with a multiple pregnancy or if you’ve experienced a premature birth before. However, understanding prematurity, the risk factors and why it happens can help you to recognise the symptoms and prepare yourself for the possibility.  Being informed and knowing the facts may help reduce the risks for you and for your baby.

Premature babies – the stats

  • Nearly 8% – or 1 in 13 – babies in the UK are born prematurely
  • There are around 60,000 babies born prematurely in the UK every year
  • The earliest and smallest babies can weigh just 500g, or 1lb
  • For babies born at 26 weeks and under, the average stay in hospital is 111 days, nearly 16 weeks
  • More than half of twin pregnancies, and almost all triplets, are born prematurely. The average length of pregnancy for a woman expecting triplets is 34 weeks
  • For babies born at 26 weeks, nearly 4 in 5 will survive. For babies born at 22 weeks, the survival rate is just 2%
  • 1 in 5 babies born extremely preterm (before 27 weeks) have a disability such as blindness, profound hearing loss, cerebral palsy or severe learning difficulties
  • The numbers of premature births in the UK are increasing. Possible factors are women having babies later in life, and higher numbers of multiple pregnancies caused by fertility treatments

What is prematurity?

A baby is classed as premature when she is born before 37 weeks of gestation. There are different degrees of prematurity:

  • Near-term – born before 34-36 weeks
  • Moderate – 32-33 weeks
  • Severe – less than 28-31 weeks
  • Extreme – 27 weeks or less

Babies born before 26 weeks are sometimes known as ‘micro preemies’.

What are the immediate health impacts of prematurity?

Premature babies haven’t finished growing and developing, which means that they are often born small with a low birth weight.

  • In many premature babies, their lungs will not have fully developed. They often need help breathing, as their lungs are not mature enough for them to breathe independently
  • Their low weight means they can get very cold and be at risk of hypothermia
  • Most babies will not be able to breastfeed, and will be nourished through tubes
  • Other organs may also not be well developed, such as the bowel
  • Premature babies can have problems with their eyes, such as retinopathy which can cause sight loss
  • Babies often spend a similar amount of time in hospital to as they would have done in the womb if they’d gone full term

What are the long term health impacts of prematurity?

  • Many babies born early go on to lead healthy lives, but being born prematurely does bring an increased risk of ill-health
  • 1 in 5 babies born extremely preterm (before 27 weeks) have a disability such as blindness, profound hearing loss, cerebral palsy or severe learning difficulties

Do all babies born prematurely survive?

  • The survival rate of premature babies’ increases with every week they are closer to going full term
  • The number of babies surviving has increased from the mid 90s to the mid 2000s:
    • For babies born at 22 weeks, the survival rate is just 2%
    • For babies born at 23 weeks, 1 in 5 survive
    • For babies born at 24 weeks, 2 in 5 survive
    • For babies born at 25 weeks, two thirds, or more than 3 in 5 survive
    • For babies born at 26 weeks, nearly 4 in 5 will survive

What causes prematurity?

  • In many cases there is no known reason
  • Around one third of premature births are thought to be caused by infections in the womb
  • Problems with the cervix can cause premature birth – if your cervix is less than 2cm long, you are more likely to have a baby prematurely
  • Multiple pregnancies – having twins or triplets increases the risk, as the womb can struggle to accommodate more than one baby
  • Pre-eclampsia may mean that a woman may need to deliver the baby early, for example by emergency caesarean
  • Women over the age of 35 have a higher risk of premature birth
  • Lifestyle factors such as smoking and drinking can make it more likely that you give birth prematurely

Tommy’s funds medical research into the prevention of premature birth, stillbirth and miscarriage. They provide advice and treatment through their  clinics, website and publications, and offre a free helpline the PregnancyLine. They believe every pregnancy should have a happy ending and that every baby should have the best chance of being born healthy. www.tommys.org

You can visit the UK baby charity Tommy’s new website that will be uniting parents and loved ones of babies born prematurely with the Tommy’s Tower www.tommystower.org.uk.