Can Your Immune System Predict Preterm Birth?

Pregnancy is beautiful, stressful, and everything in between. From beginning to end, your little one grows so much! Each and every minute until delivery is crucial. For instance, the brain, lungs, and liver develop during the last few weeks. So what happens when a baby is born too early, also known as a preterm birth? And is there any way to predict it?

Preterm births can certainly cause complications. Remember, vital organs are still developing during the last few weeks. It also affects 12 to 13 percent of infants in the United States, so it’s important to keep in mind.1


Until recently, there hasn’t been a reliable way to predict a preterm birth. However, according to a 2017 experiment, the secret might be in the body’s immune system.2

What Is A Preterm Birth?

A baby is born before 37 weeks is called a preterm birth


A full-term pregnancy is 39 weeks. If a baby is born before 37 weeks, it’s called a preterm birth. Since certain organs may not fully develop, there’s a greater risk for breathing, feeding, hearing, and vision problems. Preterm babies also have a higher rate of developmental delay, disability, and death. And if a baby is born before 32 weeks? The risk for these problems are even higher.

Preterm births are more common in women who have the following risk factors:

  • Teenagers
  • Over 35 years old
  • Preterm births
  • African-American descent
  • Carrying twins, triplets, or more
  • Extreme stress
  • Infection
  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Substance use

Despite these risk factors, doctors still need a solid way to predict a preterm birth.

The Immune System And Preterm Birth

The Immune System And Preterm Birth


In a 2017 study published in Science Immunology, researchers at Stanford University wanted to know how the immune system changes throughout pregnancy. Those exact changes may be able indicate whether a woman will have a full or preterm birth.

The experiment included a group of 18 women who had full-term pregnancies. In each trimester, each woman gave a blood sample, along with another one six weeks after birth. To validate the results, a separate group of 10 women who delivered full-term were also included.


Next, with a technique called mass cytometry, up to 50 functions of immune cells in the blood samples were measured. This allowed the researchers to find which signaling pathways were the most active in each cell. Finally, after crunching some numbers, the team developed an algorithm that tracks how a mother’s immune system changes during pregnancy.

These findings confirmed that immune cells operate on a precise schedule. At regular intervals, signaling pathways are activated and immune cells increase in number.3 These factors point to normal, expected changes during a full-term pregnancy.


How To Prevent A Preterm Birth

Quit smoking and drinking alcohol and get regular prenatal care

Of course, more research is needed on the best way to predict preterm births. Until then, follow these tips to avoid preterm births, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

  • Quit smoking
  • Do not do drugs
  • Avoid drinking alcohol while pregnant
  • Get regular prenatal care
  • Wait at least 18 months between pregnancies4

It also helps to know the warning signs of preterm labor. Tell-tale symptoms are contractions every 10 minutes, changes in vaginal discharge, pelvic pressure, cramps, and a low backache. If any of these sound familiar, call 911 ASAP.5