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Are You at Risk for Preterm Labor?

Armen Hareyan's picture

Every expectant mother dreams of holding her newborn in her arms. She envisions her baby's tiny hands and feet, but no woman expects that her child will be so small that the baby's size will lead to possible health problems. According to the March of Dimes, low birthweight affects almost one in every 13 babies born in the United States each year. Low birthweight is considered a weight of less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces at birth.

What Causes Low Birthweight?

Because low birthweight, premature babies are more likely to have health problems than babies of normal weight, expectant women should know the following factors can lead to premature delivery and low birthweight: lack of prenatal care; use of alcohol, drugs, and/or cigarettes; and/or poor dental hygiene.

In addition to risk factors a woman can control, women are more likely to give birth early if they are carrying multiples and/or have experienced preterm labor with previous pregnancies. What if these factors don't apply? How can a doctor whose patient is experiencing her first pregnancy and who has a healthy lifestyle know if a patient with early contractions should be treated for preterm labor? Fetal fibronectin (fFN) provides a clue. It is a protein produced during pregnancy. When doctors detect it, fFN indicates an increased risk of preterm delivery. A cotton swab is used to collect samples during a speculum examination (similar to a Pap smear).

How Is the fFN Test Used?

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Vanessa Dalton, M.D., M.P.H., is currently studying how the fFN test is used by physicians at the University of Michigan Health System in deciding which women should be treated for preterm labor. If the test is negative, it strongly predicts that the woman will not deliver in the next two weeks. A positive test is far less helpful. It does not indicate that a woman will definitely go into labor early. "The important thing is that the test needs to be used in a very specific way for it to be helpful," says Dr. Dalton. "It is best used as one of many indicators," she explains. By using the test along with other factors, health care providers can avoid treating women unnecessarily for preterm labor.

It is reassuring for moms-to-be to know that the University of Michigan Health System's Holden Neonatal Intensive Care Unit has pioneered techniques for taking care of the tiniest new arrivals with even the most serious health problems. However, the goal for every expectant woman should be to avoid preterm labor and having a low birthweight baby. While not all factors can be controlled, women can take care of themselves and their babies even before conception to help make their dreams of having healthy babies come true.

What Are the Risks to a Preterm Baby?

Being born too early can pose multiple risks to a child. Possible complications for babies born before 32 to 34 weeks include the following.

Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS)