Every day counts when it comes to your baby’s development. Forcing an early birth by even a week can result in lifelong difficulties for your child.

The end of the third trimester of pregnancy is typically full of both excitement and anxiety for baby’s arrival. It can also be physically uncomfortable and emotionally draining.

If you’re in this stage of pregnancy now, you might be experiencing swelling ankles, increased pressure in your lower abdomen and pelvis, and circling thoughts, such as, when will I go into labor?

By the time you reach 37 weeks, labor induction might seem like a beautiful gift from the universe, but researchers recommend waiting until your baby is full term, unless there are major health concerns for you or your baby.

A full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks long. Although health practitioners once considered “term” to be from week 37 to week 42, those last few weeks are too vital to ignore.

It’s in this final crunch time that your body makes its final preparations for childbirth, while your baby completes the development of necessary organs (like the brain and lungs) and reaches a healthy birth weight.

The risk for neonatal complications is lowest in uncomplicated pregnancies delivered between 39 and 41 weeks.

To give your baby the healthiest start possible, it’s important to remain patient. Elected labor inductions before week 39 can pose short- and long-term health risks for the baby. Deliveries occurring at week 41 or later can have increased complications too.

No two women — no two pregnancies — are the same. Some babies will naturally arrive early, others late, without any major complications.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists categorize deliveries from week 37 to 42 as follows:

  • Early term: 37 weeks through 38 weeks, 6 days
  • Full term: 39 weeks through 40 weeks, 6 days
  • Late term: 41 weeks through 41 weeks, 6 days
  • Post-term: 42 weeks and beyond

The earlier your baby is born, the greater the risks to their health and survival.

If born before week 37, your baby is considered a “preterm” or “premature” baby. If born before week 28, your baby is considered “extremely premature.”

Babies born between weeks 20 to 25 have a very low chance of surviving without neurodevelopmental impairment. Babies delivered before week 23 have only a 5 to 6 percent chance of survival.

Nowadays, preterm and extremely preterm babies have the benefit of medical advances to help support the continued development of organs until their level of health is equivalent to that of a term baby.

If you know you’ll have an extremely preterm delivery, you can work with your healthcare practitioner to create a plan for the care you and your baby will receive. It’s important to talk openly with your doctor or midwife to learn all of the risks and complications that may arise.

One of the most important reasons you want to reach full term in pregnancy is to ensure the complete development of the baby’s lungs.

However, there are many factors related to the mom, baby, and placenta which will require the healthcare practitioner, doctor, or midwife to balance the risks associated with reaching full term against the benefit of full lung maturity.

Some of these factors include placenta previa, a prior cesarean or myomectomy, preeclampsia, twins or triplets, chronic hypertension, diabetes, and HIV.

In some cases, delivery earlier than 39 weeks is necessary. If you go into labor early or if your healthcare provider recommends labor induction, it’s still possible to have a positive, healthy experience.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, most babies are born full term. To be specific:

  • 57.5 percent of all recorded births occur between 39 and 41 weeks.
  • 26 percent of births occur at 37 to 38 weeks.
  • About 7 percent of births occur at weeks 34 to 36
  • About 6.5 percent of births occur at week 41 or later
  • About 3 percent of births occur before 34 weeks of pregnancy.

Some women experience recurrent preterm deliveries (having two or more deliveries before 37 weeks).

Just like having a previous preterm baby is a risk factor for having another preterm baby, women with a prior post-term delivery are more likely to have another post-term delivery.

The odds of having a post-term birth increase if you are a first-time mother, having a baby boy, or obese (BMI greater than 30).

Most of the time, the cause of a premature birth remains unknown. However, women with a history of diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or high blood pressure are more likely to experience preterm deliveries. Other risk factors and causes include:

  • pregnant with multiple babies
  • bleeding during pregnancy
  • misusing drugs
  • getting a urinary tract infection
  • smoking tobacco
  • drinking alcohol during pregnancy
  • premature birth in a previous pregnancy
  • having an abnormal uterus
  • developing an amniotic membrane infection
  • not eating healthy before and during pregnancy
  • a weak cervix
  • a history of an eating disorder
  • being overweight or underweight
  • having too much stress

There are many health risks for preterm babies. Major life-threatening issues, like bleeding in the brain or lungs, patent ductus arteriosus, and neonatal respiratory distress syndrome, can sometimes be successfully treated in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) but often require long-term treatment.

Other risks involved with preterm deliveries include:

  • developmental delays
  • trouble breathing
  • vision and hearing problems
  • low birth weight
  • difficulties latching onto the breast and feeding
  • jaundice
  • difficulty regulating body temperature

Most of these conditions will require specialized care in a NICU. This is where the healthcare professionals will perform tests, provide treatments, assist breathing, and help feed premature infants. The care a newborn receives in the NICU will help ensure the best quality of life as possible for your baby.

Things to know about the NICU

For families who do end up with a baby in the NICU, there are a few simple things that can make a huge difference for baby’s overall health and recovery.

First, practicing kangaroo care, or holding baby directly skin to skin has been shown to reduce rates of mortality, infection, illness, and the length of hospital stay. It can also help parents and babies bond.

Second, receiving human breast milk in the NICU has been found to improve survival rates and dramatically reduce rates of a severe gastrointestinal infection called necrotizing entercolitis compared to babies who receive formula.

Moms who give birth to a preterm baby should start pumping breast milk as soon as possible after birth, and pump 8 to 12 times per day. Donor milk from a milk bank is also an option.

Doctors and nurses will watch your baby as they grow to ensure proper care and treatment, if it’s necessary. It’s important to stay informed, find the appropriate specialized care, and remain consistent with any future treatments and appointments.

Though there are no magical spells to ensure full-term pregnancies, there are a few things you can do on your own to lower your risk of early labor and birth.

Before getting pregnant

Get healthy! Are you at a healthy weight? Are you taking prenatal vitamins? You’ll also want to cut back on alcohol, try to stop smoking, and not misuse any drugs.

Exercise regularly and try to eliminate any unnecessary sources of stress from your life. If you have any chronic health conditions, get treated and remain consistent with treatments.

During pregnancy

Follow the rules. Eat healthy and get the proper amount of sleep. Exercise regularly (be sure to check with your healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise routine during pregnancy).

Go to every scheduled prenatal appointment, give an honest and thorough health history to your healthcare provider, and follow their advice. Protect yourself from potential infections and sickness. Make an effort to gain the appropriate amount of weight (again, talk to your OB about what’s ideal for you).

Seek medical attention for any warning signs of preterm labor, such as contractions, constant low back pain, water breaking, abdominal cramps, and any changes in vaginal discharge.

After delivery

Wait at least 18 months before trying to conceive again. The shorter the time is between pregnancies, the greater the risk for a preterm delivery, according to the March of Dimes.

If you’re older than 35, talk to your healthcare provider about the appropriate amount of time to wait before trying again.

Giving birth unexpectedly to a premature or post-term baby can be stressful and complicated, especially when it can’t be prevented. Talk with your doctor or midwife and stay informed.

Learning as much as you can about the procedures and treatments available to you and your baby will help lower anxieties and give you a sense of control.

Keep in mind that the options and support for premature babies have improved over the years, and the odds of leaving the hospital with a healthy baby are higher than ever before. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be to provide your little one with all of the love and care they deserve.