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Quick: How many weeks should your baby spend in utero before birth? 37 weeks? 38 weeks? 39 weeks?
While 40 weeks has long been considered the length of a typical pregnancy, "term" -- that magical time when the baby can be born with the lowest risk for complications -- has frequently been described as 37 weeks or later. But new research is showing that 37 weeks is not equal to 40 weeks.
During the final weeks of pregnancy, the brain continues to grow and develop and organ systems mature. So babies born after 39 weeks are much less likely than babes born earlier to have problems with breathing, temperature regulation and eating, according to the March of Dimes. What's more, babies born at 37 weeks face twice the risk of death as babies born at 40 weeks (3.9 per 1000 versus 1.9 per 1000).
"Until recently, we didn’t really appreciate the fact that between 37 and 39 weeks, there is significant fetal growth and development," says Diane Ashton, MD, MPH, deputy medical director for the March of Dimes. In response, the organization launched Healthy Babies Are Worth the Wait to discourage moms from seeking deliveries prior to 39 weeks. Some hospitals have even started to ban non-medically necessary (elective) c-sections and inductions before 39 weeks of pregnancy.
"As women, most mothers want to do everything they can to give their babies the best start in life," Ashton says. "The final few weeks of pregnancy can be uncomfortable, but waiting just a few weeks longer can make a big difference in your baby’s life."