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Detecting a preterm birth

Premature birth is the number one cause of death among newborns in the US. But now, a new test, fetal fibronectin (fFN), has been approved by the FDA to identify a woman’s risk of delivering prematurely. It’s so accurate, it can reveal within 99 percent certainty that a woman will not deliver her baby within a two-week period.

Pregnant Woman in Pain

Why nine months count

A full-term pregnancy lasts 38 to 42 weeks; anything before 37 weeks is considered preterm.

Growth and development in the last few months of a woman’s pregnancy is essential for the healthy development of a baby. One of the fetal organs greatly affected by premature birth is the lungs (they’re one of the last organs to develop in the womb). This is why many preemies are immediately placed on a ventilator after birth.

While some preemies are born in relatively good health, others can develop severe complications, including those affecting their immune system. The shorter the term of pregnancy, the greater the risk of mortality; although rare, some preemies born at 21 week have survived.

Premature babies are also more susceptible to subsequent developmental issues and learning disabilities down the road.

Who’s at risk of delivering prematurely?

A woman rarely knows if she’s prone to delivering prematurely. But there are some circumstances that may increase the likelihood of preterm labor.

Risk factors for premature delivery include:

  • Being African-American
  • Conceiving when you’re younger than 17 years of age and older than 35
  • Previous preterm birth
  • Carrying twins or triplets
  • History of urinary tract infections or sexually transmitted diseases
  • Diabetes or maternal diabetes
  • High blood pressure or preeclampsia
  • Thyroid disease
  • Obesity
  • Short period between two pregnancies (under six months)

Lifestyle and environmental factors can also increase a woman’s chances of delivering prematurely. Those include smoking, drinking to excess, extreme stress or physical/sexual abuse. Various bacterial infections, including pneumonia and appendicitis have also been associated with preterm births.

Some risk factors cannot be modified, but you can make changes in your lifestyle to foster a full-term pregnancy. Despite the research into this area, little is known about what causes preterm birth or why these risk factors matter, which is all the more reason to change the risk factors you can control and work closely with your doctor.

Signs and symptoms of premature delivery

The symptoms of premature delivery are very similar to the experience a woman will go through if she delivers her baby on time.

Symptoms of premature delivery include:

  • Contractions (more than four in one hour)
  • Abdominal or back pain and a feeling of pressure in the uterus
  • Unusual vaginal discharge (watery in nature)
  • Diarrhea

If a woman experiences any of these symptoms, it’s important she contact her doctor, midwife or hospital immediately.

Diagnosis of preterm birth

While there are several ways to predict a high risk of preterm birth, including an obstetric ultrasound of the cervix, a new test, fetal fibronectin (fFN), is showing the most promise.

Much like a pap test, the fFN test involves a swab of the secretions near the cervix; the test looks for the presence of a protein in the secretions, which can indicate an increased risk of preterm birth. A positive test result indicates a woman is at an increased risk to deliver early; a negative result indicates that she’s not at risk.

Women with several risk factors of having a preterm birth should talk to their doctor about the fFN test. For more information, visit

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