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Some women may now request to deliver before 39 weeks of gestation when neither the mother nor the infant is at risk if the pregnancy is allowed to progress. However, research indicates that infants born prior to 39 weeks are at higher risk for more short- and long-term morbidities than those born after 39 weeks. These morbidities are potentially preventable if labor is allowed to begin on its own.

Clinical evidence also shows that a fetus experiences a significant amount of development and growth in several key organ systems between 37 and 39 weeks of gestation.

Delivery prior to 39 weeks is appropriate only if medically indicated and with documented fetal lung maturity, as specified by American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines.1

Non-medically indicated deliveries prior to 39 weeks are associated with increased risks to the health of both mother and infant.

Risks to Mother:

  • Postpartum depression2
  • Stronger and more frequent contractions3
  • Needing a cesarean delivery, which carrier its own risks, including4
    • Increased risk of negative health outcomes for the baby5
    • Longer recovery time (weeks rather than days)6
    • Risks associated with major surgery, including infection7
    • Increased chance that future pregnancies may require cesarean delivery8

Risks to Infant:

  • Greater risk of being admitted into the NICU.9
  • 20% greater risk of complications after birth, including:
    • Breathing, feeding, and temperature problems10
    • Sepsis11
    • Cerebral palsy12
  • 5% greater risk of developmental disabilities13
  • 50% greater chance of death within the first year of life14

Health care providers: WATCH this roundtable discussion to learn more about the factors contributing to the rising rates of early term and late preterm births, the potential consequences of births before 39 weeks' gestation, and evidence-based guidelines for delivery prior to 39 weeks. The roundtable discussion is moderated by Dr. Catherine Spong, Associate Director for Extramural Research, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.


  1. National Child and Maternal Health Education Program (NCMHEP). (no date). National Child and Maternal Health Education Program (NCMHEP) continuing medical education (CME) course: Raising awareness: Late preterm birth and non-medically indicated inductions prior to 39 weeks. Accessed April 19, 2013, from http://www.nichd.nih.gov/ncmhep/focus/toolkit/Documents/CME_One_Pager.pdf. (PDF - 24 KB)
  2. Ibid.
  3. March of Dimes. (2012). Get ready for labor. Accessed April 19, 2013, from http://www.marchofdimes.com/pregnancy/getready_atleast39weeks.html External Web Site Policy.
  4. NCMHEP CME, op. cit.
  5. March of Dimes, op. cit.
  6. Ibid.
  7. NCMHEP CME, op. cit.
  8. March of Dimes, op. cit.
  9. NCMHEP CME, op. cit.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Muzaffar, S. (2012). Early Elective Delivery (EED). Accessed April 19, 2013, from http://dss.mo.gov/mhd/oversight/pdf/121113-early-elective-delivery.pdf (PDF - 403 KB).
  12. NCMHEP CME, op. cit.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Fleischman, A.R., Oinuma, M., & Clark, S.L. (2010). Rethinking the definition of "term pregnancy." Obstetrics & Gynecology, 116(1), 136-139. Accessed April 19, 2013, from http://www.leapfroggroup.org/media/file/ACOGRethinkingDefinitionofTermPregnancy.pdf External Web Site Policy (PDF - 85 KB).
Last Updated Date: 10/31/2013
Last Reviewed Date: 10/31/2013