VCU School of Nursing preterm birth expert answers questions in Twitter chat

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Nancy Jallo, Ph.D.
Nancy Jallo, Ph.D.

An estimated 15 million babies are born preterm every year and the number is rising, according to the World Health Organization. Preterm birth complications are the leading cause of death among children under 5 years of age and were responsible for nearly 1 million deaths in 2015. 

The March of Dimes Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the health of mothers and babies, designated November as Prematurity Awareness Month and Nov. 17 as World Prematurity Day.  

In recognition of the awareness month, VCU Health hosted a VCU Health Chat on Nov. 10 with Nancy Jallo, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Health Nursing at VCU School of Nursing. As a family and women’s health nurse practitioner, Jallo has extensive experience in perinatal and women’s health care. In addition to her clinical responsibilities, Jallo teaches in the undergraduate and graduate programs at VCU School of Nursing and serves as a doctoral student advisor. Her research focuses on improving maternal and infant outcomes with a particular emphasis on maternal stress, associated stress responses and personal resilience. 

During the chat, Jallo answered questions about risk factors for prematurity, stress reduction techniques to prevent premature birth and effects of prematurity on newborns. 

What is preterm birth?

Preterm birth is birth that happens too soon — before 37 weeks of pregnancy. About one in 10 babies are born too soon. It is a complex problem with no single solution.

Why is prematurity a problem?

Babies born early have more health problems and may need to stay in the hospital longer after birth. Prematurity can cause a baby to have lung and breathing problems. It can also lead to infections, vision problems and hearing loss. African-American women have an increased risk for preterm birth.

What are other risk factors for prematurity?

Risk factors include having had a premature baby in the past, being pregnant with multiples — twins, triplets, etc. — and having problems with your cervix or uterus during the pregnancy or in the past. Certain medical issues such as having high blood pressure also increase risk for preterm birth. 

Are there external risk factors for premature birth?

Yes — smoking, drinking alcohol and abusing drugs are all risk factors for preterm birth. Other external risk factors include domestic violence and stress.

What are signs pregnant women should be aware of that indicate preterm labor?

Troubling signs include contractions that feel like your stomach is tightening like a fist every 10 minutes, or six in an hour, or more often. Other signs include a change in discharge from your vagina such as leaking fluid and bleeding, feeling that your baby is pushing down and cramps that feel like your period.

Can premature birth affect a baby’s brain?

Premature birth may lead to long-term developmental and/or intellectual problems. These problems may cause a baby to have trouble with learning and behavioral issues. If your pregnancy is healthy, it is best to stay pregnant for at least 39 weeks. Baby’s brains at 35 weeks of pregnancy weigh only two-thirds of what the brain will weigh at 39 to 40 weeks. 

What can women do to reduce their risk for preterm birth?

Do not smoke, drink alcohol, use street drugs or abuse prescription drugs. Reduce your stress by practicing stress-reduction strategies such as relaxation, breathing and guided imagery or visualization. Protect yourself from infection and wait at least 18 months between giving birth and getting pregnant again. 

What can women do to reduce stress during pregnancy?

Use guided imagery — imagine positive, relaxing images. Your body responds to made up images just like it does to real experiences. Take slow, deep breaths — breathing can help reduce stress as well. Lastly, exercise by taking a walk. Another good technique is to write down something for which you are grateful every day. 

What can all people do to reduce prematurity?

Everyone should know the signs of preterm labor. Keep your vaccinations up to date — including the flu vaccine to reduce the chance of spreading infections. Stop smoking to reduce the risk of second-hand smoke exposure for pregnant women.

What should I do if I think I am in preterm labor?

First, call your health care provider. Stop what you are doing and rest on your side. Drink two-to-three glasses of water and follow your health care provider’s directions.