Touching Lives - December 2004
Revealing the misconceptions of premature birth
Premature birth rarely hits the headlines, although the recent tragic case of baby Charlotte Wyatt received extensive news coverage. Charlotte’s mother went into labour in just the 26th week of pregnancy. Consequently, Charlotte has never left the Portsmouth hospital where she was born. She suffers serious health problems as a result of being born very pre-term, giving her parents — and the doctors who care for her — agonising decisions over how much to intervene with life-saving treatment to keep her alive.
While profoundly sad, cases like Charlotte’s do help raise awareness of premature birth among the public. And it is important that people do understand more, because new research shows a surprisingly low level of knowledge about premature birth in the UK.
This is the main finding of a YouGov poll commissioned by Mothercare in support of Action Medical Research’s ‘Touching Tiny Lives’ campaign. Nearly 2,000 people across the UK were asked what they knew about premature birth, and the results are very revealing.
Most striking was the widespread belief that premature birth is rare. Half the women surveyed thought that only one per cent of babies or less are born prematurely. In fact, ^a baby is born prematurely every 11 minutes, making up approximately ten per cent of all births in Britain^. Around 130 babies are born prematurely in the UK every day.
The survey also discovered that millions of women believe premature labour simply won’t happen to them, with nine out of ten mothers failing to read up on the subject while pregnant.
The research shows that women hold a series of worrying misconceptions about premature birth:
One in five think that doctors can virtually always pre-diagnose premature births — this is untrue. A further quarter (28 per cent) of those surveyed simply didn’t know.
One third also wrongly believe that doctors can usually stop premature labour. In fact there are no effective treatments to prevent premature labour.
Almost one in ten believe premature birth only happens when people have done something wrong to trigger it, such as smoking during pregnancy or having had an accident. This can sometimes be the cause, but when it’s not, this misconception can lead to mothers blaming themselves for something that is not their fault.
Almost one in ten incorrectly assume that premature birth is mostly genetic and runs in the family.
So much for the common misconceptions — what are the real causes of premature birth? It’s not an easy question to answer because there are a number of possible reasons, and also various factors that increase the likelihood of being born early, such as with first pregnancies and with multiple births.
^Around a third of all premature births occur for no apparent reason, and often with no warning^. The pregnancy is progressing, as it should, until labour starts early. Some doctors think labour may be triggered by an undetected infection, but this has not been proven. In other cases, the mother’s membranes rupture before labour starts. If this happens before 37 weeks gestation, then the mother is more likely to have a premature delivery.
Doctors sometimes decide to deliver babies early, if either the mother or baby appear to be in danger if the pregnancy continues. This might happen if the mother develops a pregnancy complication like pre-eclampsia, for example, or in an obstetric emergency such as a problem with the umbilical cord which is impairing the baby’s oxygen supply. There are many other possible reasons too.
Action Medical Research is aiming to raise £3million through the Touching Tiny Lives campaign to help sick and vulnerable babies. Thanks to advances in medical research, as many as 80-85 per cent of babies born weighing less than 1,000gms (2.2lbs) now survive in the UK. But not enough money goes into investigating ways to prevent premature birth and conditions affecting the most vulnerable babies. There is great potential for more research breakthroughs in this area in the future, and Action Medical Research aims to be at the heart of many of them.