Pregnancy is a time of celebration; a season marked with hope and the promise of new life. However, each year a staggering 15 million moms face the daunting reality of giving birth prematurely. This month, World Prematurity Day aims to raise awareness. Give your child a fighting chance. Recognise the signs during pregnancy and learn to provide the best care for your unborn child.

The fight for survival
A mother’s womb provides the ideal conditions for a baby to grow until it reaches full development at around 40 weeks of gestation. The longer a baby stays within this protected space, the better its chances of survival. A child born before 37 weeks of pregnancy is considered a ‘preemie’ (premature baby). Sadly, the earlier a baby is born, the greater their risk of death, illness and possible long-term health complications.

According to the World Health Organisation, preterm birth is the leading cause of death in children under the age of 5. Although the youngest surviving preemie was officially recorded at only 21 weeks and 5 days of gestation, the majority born this early do not survive. This is particularly evident in developing nations where medical facilities are limited.

Essential healthcare
Over the years, modern medicine has done much to help predict, prevent and care for those facing premature births. Many of these young lives will require weeks (and even months) in intensive care units under medical surveillance.

Under the expert care of medical professionals, there remains hope for steady progress towards full development. Some of the tiniest babies go on to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. Our very own Olympic champion Wayde Van Niekerk, born three months premature, is a shining example of what can be accomplished through the life of a preterm baby.

The risks
Each pregnancy presents its own challenges. However, there are a number of risk factors to avoid when you are expecting. Your overall health, weight and diet are important. Mothers who pick up too much weight during pregnancy may be at a higher risk of developing complications such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes. Both conditions will increase your risk of premature labour.

Other risk factors include high blood pressure; smoking or substance abuse; frequent uterine infections; severe emotional or physical stress; a previous premature birth; or the presence of multiple babies, such as twins or triplets. Pregnant mothers over 35 or under 17, also face higher risks of premature birth.

Aim for optimal health
It is important to take care of yourself, and in turn, care for your unborn child. Good nutrition, regular exercise and prenatal care including prenatal vitamins are important to ensure your baby’s overall wellbeing. If you are planning to have future children, aim for at least a one year gap between pregnancies. New research suggests that mothers are more inclined to give birth prematurely if the gap between pregnancies is less than 18 months.

Recognise the signs
If you are pregnant and your baby is not due for a couple of weeks (or months) it is vital to pay careful attention to any changes in your body. Immediately call your doctor if you experience contractions that are 10 minutes apart (or less). Lower back pain, abdominal cramping or leaking of fluid could also be warning signs of premature labour.

Hope for the future
If you have a high risk pregnancy, take heart. Some of the world’s most influential minds had a premature start to life, from famous scientists, Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, to musical prodigy Stevie Wonder and author, Mark Twain.

Trust in God. “”Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations,” (Jeremiah 1:5).

*This article was originally written for Selfmed Medical Aid Scheme.

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