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The following content is an educational collaboration between WebMD and the Department of Health and Human Services.

The last few weeks of pregnancy are very important for your baby’s development.

“For years, we thought babies born at 37 or 38 weeks were fine,” says Scott Berns, MD, deputy medical director of the March of Dimes.

But over the last 10 years, experts have learned that’s not true. “Babies born even a couple of weeks early have a higher chance of medical problems,” he says.

Sometimes moms or doctors try to plan childbirth around their busy schedules, trying to fit the delivery more easily into their own work or vacation schedule. Or a doctor may be trying to make sure he or she handles the delivery instead of another doctor at his or her practice. It’s become more popular to try to schedule delivery rather than wait for labor to start on its own.

The number of babies delivered through early, induced labor almost doubled between 1992 and 2004, and rates of early induction remained high. This means the number of babies born between 36 and 38 weeks has been rising, while the number of babies delivered at 39 weeks has been going down. That's not good for babies or their families.

To help reverse the trend, the March of Dimes has launched a campaign, Healthy Babies Are Worth the Wait. And the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has launched the Strong Start Program. When parents find out how much the last weeks count, Berns says, they almost always decide to wait and let nature take its full course. It's best for you, and it's best for your baby.

Why Early Delivery May Be Dangerous

A baby’s important organs, like the brain and lungs, are still developing in weeks 37 and 38. Babies born earlier than 39 weeks are more likely to have medical conditions that require time in the intensive care unit. A baby delivered early may have:

  • Breathing problems because his lungs are not fully developed  
  • Feeding problems because he may have trouble sucking or swallowing
  • A serious infection that could threaten his life

When Early Delivery Is Your Only Choice

Sometimes your baby needs to be born early because one of you has a medical problem. The most common medical reasons for inducing labor early include:

  • Your baby isn’t growing. You may hear your doctor call this intrauterine growth restriction or IUGR.
  • Your water breaks. You may hear your doctor call this premature rupture of membranes, or PROM.
  • You had diabetes before you were pregnant or developed gestational diabetes during your pregnancy.
  • You have high blood pressure or preeclampsia.

In these cases, the benefits of an early induction outweigh the risks. However, if there are no medical risks present, it's best to let labor begin on its own.