by Alan Greene, MD, FAAP
Within the next 24 hours, more than 1,300 babies in the United States will be born prematurely - or more than three weeks ahead of their due dates. That’s one in every eight babies. A premature birth poses significant risks to a child’s health and long-term well-being.How can you tell who is likely to give birth early? The women who have the highest chance of preterm labor and birth may fall (usually fall) within one or all of these categories:

- carrying more than one baby,
- with structural problems of the cervix or uterus,
- who have already had a premature baby, or
- younger than 17 or older than 35.

A long list of medical problems and lifestyle choices can affect the odds as well. But even with complete information, we don’t know who will have a premature baby. It can happen to anyone. But, there are some things you can do to reduce your chances.

In honor of Prematurity Awareness Month, here are steps you can take during pregnancy to prevent premature birth.

1. Go to all of your prenatal health care appointments, so that any problems (such as high blood pressure or gestational diabetes) will be caught and addressed early.

2. Go for relaxing walks. Regular exercise can help prevent and treat problems such as high blood pressure and gestational diabetes that can lead to preterm labor. And the relaxation is an added bonus.

3. Report burning experienced during urination right away in case you have an infection.

4. Take care of your teeth and gums—brushing and flossing could be more important than you think. Women with gum disease could be more than twice as likely to have a premature baby. The right dental care could make a big difference.

5. Eat organic. Some pesticides used for growing produce have been linked to preterm labor. A number of studies have found higher than average levels of pesticides in the amniotic fluid or umbilical cord blood of babies born early. In farming communities, preterm labor is most common in the months when pesticides are at their peak and least common when pesticides are at their lowest levels.

6. Avoid tobacco, which decreases the blood supply to your baby. This includes secondhand smoke.

7. Avoid taking herbs, supplements, or drugs you haven’t discussed with your healthcare provider.

8. Avoid long hours on your feet.

9. Learn the signs of preterm labor. Labor can often be stopped if recognized.

Learn more about Prematurity Awareness Month and easy steps you can take to protect your baby from the Prematurity Campaign of the March of Dimes.