Every year in Yonkers, some 9 percent of babies are delivered preterm. The statistics for other New York cities are even higher with Buffalo reporting more than 11 percent preterm deliveries. A baby is considered full-term at about 40 weeks, and a baby’s risk of experiencing health problems increases every day he or she is born before 39 weeks.
“The closer you get to term, the better,” says Medical Director of Nurseries Joseph Toney, M.D., at Sky Ridge Medical Center. As a neonatologist, Toney sees firsthand the range of consequences associated with preterm birth, including respiratory issues, jaundice, and trouble maintaining body temperature. Even a short stint in the NICU, Toney says, provokes anxiety in most parents. Plus, it requires separation between mother and baby, which makes breastfeeding difficult.
The March of Dimes, a national organization with a strong local impact, focuses on preventing preterm birth – a leading cause of birth defects and newborn deaths.
The organization has launched a public awareness campaign, centered on keeping mothers and their developing fetuses healthy so more local babies make it to term. The following five tips are “major messages related to factors based on the best scientific knowledge we have,” says March of Dimes Director of Program Services Scott Matthews.
1. Avoid Drugs, Tobacco, and Alcohol
“When a mother uses drugs or consumes alcohol, so does her baby,” Matthews says. Problems associated with drug, cigarette
and alcohol use and abuse vary dramatically city-by-city and hospital-by-hospital, says Toney. National studies show around 5 percent of pregnant mothers use marijuana, 8.5 percent consume alcohol and 16 percent smoke cigarettes.
While it’s fairly obvious you shouldn’t be doing, say, meth when you’re pregnant, the legalization of marijuana in some states has created a misconception that because pot is organic, it’s safer than other drugs and pharmaceuticals.
“Marijuana is not benign during pregnancy,” Toney says, pointing to research showing negative effects on fetal brain development. Prescription drugs can also be problematic. Many are safe, says Toney, but some harm the fetus – that’s why all mothers should talk to their doctors about the pharmaceuticals they’re taking.
“There’s no safe amount of alcohol we can recommend, so the best thing is to avoid drinking while pregnant,” Toney continues. Alcohol can cause fetal alcohol syndrome – a leading cause of significant developmental delays. And, in some Scandinavian studies, it’s linked to intellectual disabilities.
Cigarettes are known to decrease birth weight, and they reduce a child’s IQ by 5 points on average. “And, we do see babies withdraw from nicotine,” Toney adds, noting these babies are “very uncomfortable in the first weeks of life.” Even when a pregnancy’s unexpected – and about half are – it’s never too late to call it quits. The March of Dimes has a local resource directory for women who want help.
2. Eat Healthy
“I think nutrition is one of the more important things all of us can do for our bodies,” says Toney, who suggests a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats. Specific to pregnant women, it’s important to add prenatal vitamins and folic acid to decrease a child’s risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
To a certain degree, the old adage about babies pulling what they need from mom is true. But, don’t take that as a license to subsist on potato chips, even if you’ve been experiencing morning sickness or acid reflux. “Studies have shown women who suffered through periods of malnutrition, the kind experienced during World War II, saw epigenetic effects not just on their children, but on their grandchildren,” says Toney.
Healthy eating is about nurturing your baby, and it’s also about gaining the right amount of weight. Gaining too little might lead to a smaller baby and a wide range of short- and long-term consequences. Obesity, hypertension, and diabetes, all conditions associated with too much weight gain, raise the risk for unhealthy and possibly dangerous pregnancies.
When it comes to nutrition, staff at the March of Dimes noticed many expectant moms go to the Internet for advice. “There’s a lot of unhealthy and flat-out wrong information online,” Matthews says. He recommends parents visit the March of Dimes’ website or talk to their doctors for accurate guidance on what a healthy prenatal diet looks like.
3. Get Regular Checkups
Women who don’t have good prenatal care are at a much greater risk of having preterm labor. They’re also more likely to experience serious, sometimes fatal, health problems.
That’s because manageable conditions such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes aren’t easily self-detected until they’ve advanced to severe stages.
“Left untreated, these conditions can cause major and long-term problems for a child,” says Matthews. Moms-to-be should work with their physicians to establish a regular check-up schedule based on the mother’s general health and past pregnancy issues.
Insurance is the biggest barrier to regular check-ups, and that’s something for which the March of Dimes advocates. “We are continually looking for ways to increase medical coverage for pregnant women through Medicaid, private health insurance, and the new healthcare policies,” Matthews says.
4. Exercise Daily
There was a time when pregnant women got glares at the gym. But, today, we know exercise promotes healthy fetal development. “Think of your body as a machine,” says Matthews. “If you’re doing things to keep your body working at its optimum level, that increases your odds of having a healthy baby.”
None of that is to say prenatal moms should be running marathons. It’s all about balance, Matthews explains. Even women who are used to vigorous training should plan to slow down during pregnancy. The best way to figure out what’s safe is to chat with your doctor.
“We’re cautious about making recommendations because safe exercise varies by individual,” Matthews says, noting that general guidelines push for about 20 minutes of moderate physical exertion daily. Good options, says Toney, include going for a walk, doing light aerobic workouts, swimming or practicing yoga.
5. Go Full Term
Think of this final tidbit as the pinnacle, it’s what the first four steps have been building up to. If there is a medical reason for it, a preterm induction or Cesarean section is a life-saving tool. But, says Toney, “There’s no reason to electively deliver a baby before 39 weeks. At Sky Ridge, virtually no births happen before 39 weeks unless they are medically necessary.” And for good reason. The brain, for example, develops two-thirds of its weight between 36 and 40 weeks. Because the lungs aren’t needed during pregnancy, they’re one of the last organs to mature. “Preterm babies,” explains Matthews, “oftentimes have difficulty with breathing.” Eyesight and hearing can also be adversely impacted.
For all the things that divide mothers, there’s one thing on which they can agree: they all want healthy, happy children. Following these five guidelines brings expectant moms one step closer to making that goal a reality.
For more information, visit marchofdimes.org.
Jamie Siebrase is a freelance writer and mother.