With Saturday November 17th being World Prematurity Day, Will County Health Department Case Management Program Coordinator Sylvia Muniz says the best way to avoid a premature birth is to “plan your pregnancy” from the start.
And even if you find yourself pregnant when you did not plan on it, begin planning your nine-month journey immediately. “Get yourself into early prenatal care during that first trimester,” Muniz advises. “And then follow through on everything your doctor, nurse practitioner, or certified nurse midwife tells you to do during this important time.”
As recently as 2016, one in ten births in the United States were considered to be premature. “This is not as easy to prevent as people think,” Muniz explained. “And there are racial and social disparities as well.” (For example, in 2016 nine percent of births by Caucasian mothers in the U S were considered premature, while 14 percent of African American births fell into that category.) “So people will say, ‘How do you fix that?’ And the simple truth is no one has figured out a cure. It’s all about prevention through education.”
While a normal pregnancy lasts 40 weeks, any birth at 37 weeks or earlier is considered premature. Muniz says the current standard for trying to resuscitate and save a premature baby is 23 weeks depending on the individual case. Muniz recalls that number being 25 to 26 weeks when her nursing career began 22 years ago.
“Obviously, we’ve had technological and medication advances,” Muniz said. “One of the biggest changes was the approval of a drug in the early 90s known as surfactant. It is administered through the baby’s breathing tube and allows for the exchange of gases to take place, which is impaired because of lung immaturity.”
But even when a premature baby is able to survive, there are many challenges ahead. “There are long term effects on the child, the family, and society,” said Muniz. “The child can have developmental problems from heart and brain development, to retinopathy, which is vision problems due to immature blood vessels in the eyes. These problems can cause major financial and emotional difficulties for the family. Then, in the long run, the question is: Can they contribute to society as adults, or will they require lifelong support?”
Muniz says the Will County Health Department’s Better Birth Outcomes program is specifically designed to prevent premature delivery and pregnancy complications. “We often receive referrals for future mothers already in our WIC program. Or we can be contacted directly. BBO has no income requirement and there is no charge to insurance. We are simply looking at risk factors that can affect a pregnancy; be they medical, social, background, education, and others.”
Muniz says BBO spends time communicating with a participant’s medical provider as well. “Our aim is to reinforce what their providers tell them concerning prenatal education. We will ask what they were told, and see if they are doing it. And then once a month we write to the provider, just to touch base and make sure what we are being told is accurate.”