The New Definition of “Full Term”: What Moms Need To Know

July 9th, 2014

07.09.14_Know Your Terms_Image 1Catherine Y. Spong, M.D.
Associate Director for Extramural Research
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)
National Institutes of Health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

As a mother and OB-GYN, I’m not only privileged to have four children of my own, but I’ve shared in the joy when my patients deliver their own babies.

As my patients reached the last few weeks of their pregnancies, when they were so eager to meet their babies and could see the “finish line,” sometimes they asked, “Why do the last few weeks really matter? Isn’t the baby just fattening up?”

This is an important question that has caused confusion for some time. Research has shown that the last few weeks of pregnancy make a difference for the baby’s health. During weeks 37 and 38, the brain forms connections that will be important for coordination, movement, and learning. Babies born at 37 and 38 weeks are more likely to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), are at a higher risk for blood infections, and can have problems with breathing, feeding, and controlling their temperature. They may also be at higher risk later in life for learning problems and difficulties with vision and hearing. We know from experience and research that babies born at or after 39 weeks have the fewest complications.07.09.14_Know Your Terms_Image 2

By definition, a baby born anytime between 37 weeks and 42 weeks is considered “term.” However, because of the health risks to the baby before 39 weeks, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) provided a forum in December 2012 with health care provider groups worldwide to discuss the “Definition of Term.” This forum and communication within the maternal and child health field resulted in a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article that outlined new definitions:

  • Early term: Babies born at 37 weeks and 38 weeks
  • Full term: Babies born in weeks 39 and 40
  • Late term: Babies born in week 41
  • Postterm: Babies born at 42 weeks and later

07.09.14_Know Your Terms_Image 3These definitions were endorsed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, and the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nurses.

Help us spread the word that a baby is not “full term” until 39 weeks of pregnancy. If you have questions, talk to your health care provider about what the new full-term pregnancy definition means for you. Learn more about the new full-term pregnancy definition from the Know Your Terms Initiative.

13 Responses to “The New Definition of “Full Term”: What Moms Need To Know

  1. Blog post looks at new definitions of “term” baby says:

    […] Dr. Catherine Spong reports on the new definitions of “term” pregnancy in her latest blog. She reports that some mothers think that the baby is just getting bigger the last few weeks of pregnancy and these the last few weeks are not that important. Research shows that the baby’s brain and lungs are still developing in the last weeks of pregnancy and there are fewer complications if that baby is born at or after 39 weeks. To read her complete blog visit here. […]

  2. Theresa says:

    Is the definition of full term of 40 weeks as calculated by an ultrasound during the first trimester or based on last menstrual cycle?

  3. admin says:

    The best source for specifics on your individual pregnancy is your healthcare provider. But in general terms, gestational age is first calculated by last menstrual period and then later reassessed by ultrasound, often confirmed yet again later, as ultrasound becomes more accurate later in pregnancy.

  4. It’s Not Just About the Babies « Adventures of a Labor Nurse says:

    […] The New Definition of “Full Term” […]

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  6. Pmorris says:

    So you are technically saying that my 16 year old 5’10″ 130lbs healthy strong long distance swimmer is going to have problems in life because she was born at 36 weeks. She was eating solids at 5 months, rolling and crawling, walked at 9 months , talking like a normal person not baby babble before age 2. Well darn, I guess I could have risked both our lives for another 4 weeks to keep with your ridiculous studies. These posts are why new mothers in this generation are being so crazy with their babies.
    Don’t introduce food to soon, don’t feed more this one type of food at a time, don’t give them spices. How about we put them in s bubble till they mature and can tell you what they want and need.

  7. Ajax6677 says:

    Pmorris- perhaps you should pay attention to the words “at higher risk”. It doesn’t mean a child is guaranteed to have problems. It means that the CHANCES for complications increase. But carry on freaking out over your lack of understanding probabilities.

  8. Sarah91 says:

    Pmorris- it doesn’t mean your child is GUARANTEED to have complications. Starting solids isn’t some sort of accomplishment or milestone. It puts your child at risk for GI issues down the road when you start solids before 6 months. Times change and research changes different things. That’s what happens when you SCIENCE. Do you science??

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  11. MAT STRAZZULA says:

    Was born early, march 6th instead of may 1st. 3 lbs 5 oz., was in an incubator for months. Yes i have a high IQ but am on the very mild autism spectrum. Mom had an emergency appendectomy at 3 months. glad I survived. Thanks due to the great medical care I got at the laying in hospital, now part of MGA hospital in BOSTON MA. Thanks to the childrens hospital in Boston I learned to speak, and speak correctly. The best thing u can do for you child to be is to take care of yourself, and the father of the child to take care of themselves. There should be a class on parenthood in every high school. And every child should get a good education. The most important job is being a parent.

  12. Idiaz says:

    Question: if my son was born at 37 weeks 0 days and I was already having preterm labor at 28 weeks…and was 80% effaced at 34 weeks…had pre hypertension, DM, should my son have been in the NICu? He DID have some of those delays, and I kept asking a few docs and they said he was fine. This was in March of 2014…

    Please someone answer

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