Can preterm births be prevented?

Posted on 7 November 2018

Pregnancy can take a scary turn when preterm birth becomes a possibility. Three Mediclinic experts weigh in.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), every year an estimated 15 million babies are born preterm (any infant born before 37 weeks’ gestation).

“Birth weight also comes into it, as preterm babies are classified according to what they weigh,” explains Dr Samantha O’Ryan, a neonatologist at Mediclinic Panorama. “The earlier the delivery and the lower the birth weight, the higher your baby’s risk of developing health complications.”

Are preterm births dangerous?

Having your baby come early can be stressful for parents but with the proper post-birth care the risks associated with preterm birth can be mitigated.

Premature babies are at greater risk of complications and will often require specialised post-birth care to support their development.

How Mediclinic doctors help your preemie

Why do preterm births happen?

Dr Almero Viljoen, a gynaecologist and obstetrician at Mediclinic George, says that in most cases, the cause of premature labour is unknown. However, there are a number of factors that could trigger an early labour:

  • A family history of premature labour
  • Women who’ve had operations on their cervix
  • Previous premature labour
  • If you’re expecting multiples
  • Having a short or weak cervix
  • Bladder or kidney infections and chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure

There are no specific foods that can cause premature labour but there are a few medications that definitely do and are marked as such.

Pregnant and diabetic?

Can preterm labour be stopped? 

While there is no way to prevent preterm births from happening, preterm labour can be stopped. According to Dr Viljoen, the first line of treatment for premature labour is usually a drug for high blood pressure called Nifedipine, which relaxes the uterus. This is given every 30 minutes until contractions settle or a maximum dose is achieved.

In addition, doctors usually prescribe medication that helps stop the premature labour process. There is also a 48-hour intravenous treatment called Atosiban that blocks oxytocin, the hormone that causes contractions.

INFOGRAPHIC: The difference a week makes

What measures can be taken to ensure a preterm baby’s survival?

“Immediately after birth, your baby will be assessed for his or her degree of lung support,” says Dr O’Ryan. ‘“Some infants require invasive ventilation, where a machine does the work of breathing for them, and others require less-invasive assistance from a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.”

Many parents feel helpless but Mediclinic Medforum practises Neurodevelopmental Supportive Care (NDSC) to ensure the baby grows well neurologically and physically. “NDSC entails dimming of lights, minimised noise and minimal handling in the beginning,” explains Sister Prudence Bvuma, a senior professional nurse at Mediclinic Medforum. “But Kangaroo Care is introduced quite soon. This involves a lot of skin-to-skin contact and, ideally, frequent breastfeeding which is great for both parents and babies.”

Wayde van Niekerk: Preemie on the podium


In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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