If a baby is born before 37 weeks, this is classed as premature labour. The causes of premature labour are not always known and it is possible for any woman to experience premature labour.
However, young mothers, smokers, underweight women and those suffering from health conditions, such as diabetes, pre-eclampsia or sexually transmitted infections, are at a higher risk. Premature labour can also be caused if the foetus is not developing normally.
A woman will be diagnosed as being in premature labour if her cervix has started to dilate. Although there are drugs available to halt labour, they are not particularly effective. Instead, they are normally used to postpone labour until a woman can reach a specialist care baby unit.
Fortunately, babies born between 34 and 37 weeks usually require minimal medical care as the baby's body, organs and systems are almost fully mature. They may need help with breathing and feeding, but the long term prognosis for these babies is excellent.
Babies born below the 34 week mark will need specialist neonatal care, and their prognosis depends entirely on how early their delivery is. While survival rates have been significantly improved, a very premature baby is likely to develop health issues such as lung and chest problems, pneumonia, and problems with vision and hearing.
Although science has made incredible progress, those born before 27 weeks have a limited chance of survival. However, from 27 weeks onwards, the survival rates increase dramatically with the appropriate medical care.