General HealthPregnancy and Newborn Health

What are some common Prenatal and Perinatal Risk Factors?

Pregnancy is the term used to describe the period in which a foetus develops inside a person’s womb or uterus. This time period is extremely crucial as any complications before, during (prenatal) and after (perinatal) pregnancy can greatly hinder foetal development. Pregnant people should be aware of the various prenatal and perinatal risk factors and complications and accordingly consult with their obstetricians so as to ensure a healthy pregnancy and hence, a healthy child.

Prenatal period is the time from conception till birth. Prenatal period is when the foetus’s body organs rapidly develop and become functional. This period is also when the foetus’s psychological and physical growth takes place and is highly sensitive to the environmental conditions via the mother.

The mothers should take special care of their nutrition, diet, lifestyle patterns and environmental exposure during the prenatal period so as to avoid possible risk factors and prevent complications

The risk factors associated with prenatal period are:

  • Alcohol intake can cause foetal alcohol syndrome which is linked to heart defects, body malformations and intellectual disability.
  • Active or passive smoking leads to low birthweight and results in a weakened immune system, poor respiration and neurological impairment. Maternal smoking increases the risk of placenta praevia, placental abruption and preterm labour.
  • Excess Nicotine and Caffeine intake can damage the developing foetus’s brain and lungs and may sometimes lead to low birthweight
  • Chronic metabolic illnesses like Diabetes can increase insulin levels in the foetus and Hypertension can reduce blood flow to the placenta.
  • Maternal diseases such as Herpes, Rubella and HIV infections can negatively impact foetal growth. A foetal Rubella virus infection can cause deafness, congenital cataracts, microcephaly, seizures, intellectual disability, autism, diabetes and thyroid dysfunction. Herpes virus can also infect the foetus leading to deafness, brain swelling and intellectual disability.
  • Illicit psychoactive drug intake leads to low birth weight and neurological impairment.
  • Exposure to toxins, pollutants, chemicals and radiation may result in birth defects. The foetal brain is vulnerable to environmental toxins as the blood brain barrier is not yet developed and is permeable to toxins.
  • Eating disorders which may cause malnourishment.
  • Deficiencies of folic acid and iron is associated with neural tube defects. The WHO considers iodine deficiency as the most common cause of preventable brain damage.
  • Obesity can lead to birth defects and neural tube defects
  • Poverty is and indirect risk factor as it results in improper diet and poor healthcare.
  • Previous abortions or miscarriages.
  • Teenage pregnancy as the body and mind is not mature enough for all the hormonal and physical changes.
  • Stress directly influences the maternal hormone levels which in turn affects foetal immune system and leads to preterm birth.

Perinatal period is a time from pregnancy till a year after giving birth. The WHO defines perinatal period as “commencing at 22nd weeks of gestation and ending 7 days after birth”. The first year postpartum is a significant time as it brings about psychological, emotional and physical changes for the mother.

The risk factors seen in the perinatal period are:

  • Undetected and untreated pregnancy related complications may lead to premature birth and/or developmental delays which include gestational diabetes, hypertensive disorders and birth trauma.
  • Low birth weight or premature birth.
  • Delivery through C-section or vacuum.
  • Rh sensitivity or isoimmunisation is when the pregnant person’s blood protein is incompatible with the baby’s, causing their immune system to react and destroy the baby’s blood cells. If left untreated Rh sensitivity can give rise to anemia and severe hyperbilirubinemia, and may also progress to seizures, deafness, cognitive delays and cerebral palsy in the surviving infants.

A healthy and informed lifestyle is imperative in tackling various prenatal and perinatal risks. The specialist must check for genetic anomalies, maternal diseases and infections as early as the first trimester and treat them to ensure for a healthy growth of the embryo. Pregnant individuals should not neglect any of the risks and should take special care during the entire term of pregnancy.


 Dr. Aparna Mishra is a practicing dentist with over 11 years of experience. Her interests include writing especially literature writing.

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