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Patient education: When a baby is born premature (The Basics)

Patient education: When a baby is born premature (The Basics)

What does it mean when a baby is born premature? — A baby born before 37 weeks of pregnancy (3 or more weeks before the due date) is called "premature" or "preterm." Pregnancy normally lasts about 40 weeks, counting from the first day of your last period. Premature babies are sometimes called "preemies" for short.

What causes premature birth? — It's not always possible to know the cause. But some things that might cause a person to go into labor early include:

Bleeding or other problems in the uterus (figure 1)

Being pregnant with twins, triplets, or more babies

Infection in the uterus or other part of the body

Problems during pregnancy, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart or kidney problems

Smoking, drinking alcohol, or using illegal drugs during pregnancy

Stress

What kinds of problems can premature babies have after birth? — Premature babies can have many different problems after being born. Every baby is different. But in general, the earlier a baby was born and the less they weighed, the more likely they are to have health problems. Doctors use the following categories to describe babies born premature:

"Extremely preterm" babies were born before 28 weeks of pregnancy.

"Very preterm" babies were born between 28 and 32 weeks of pregnancy.

"Moderately preterm" babies were born between 32 and 34 weeks of pregnancy.

"Late preterm" babies were born between 34 and 37 weeks of pregnancy.

While a baby is still in the womb, their organs and body parts are growing and developing. Premature babies can have problems because they haven't had enough time to develop all the way.

Some of the more common issues are:

Trouble keeping warm – Very small babies can have trouble staying warm. There are things that can help keep a newborn baby as warm as possible, like special hats and blankets. It can also help to hold your baby directly against your skin. This is called "skin-to-skin" contact.

Your baby might also be put in an incubator or "isolette." This is a bed that is surrounded by clear plastic to help keep your baby safe and warm; it can also have a heater.

Breathing problems – Premature babies sometimes have trouble breathing on their own after birth. That's usually because their lungs have not fully developed. Your baby's doctor or nurse will monitor (watch) their breathing.

Heart problems – In some premature babies, a blood vessel that should close after birth stays open. In time, the blood vessel might close on its own, or it might need treatment. Low blood pressure is also common in premature babies.

Infection – Babies who were born early are more likely to get infections. That's because they are not able to fight off germs as well as full-term babies (born after 40 weeks of pregnancy).

Digestive system problems – Some premature babies have a problem with their intestines that causes diarrhea, vomiting, and sometimes blood in the bowel movements. This usually happens within a few weeks after birth, and can be serious.

Bleeding in the brain – Babies born early sometimes have bleeding inside the brain. This happens within a few days of being born. This bleeding can be mild and stop on its own, or it can be more serious. In very premature babies, brain imaging tests are done to look for this problem.

Jaundice – This is when the skin or white part of the eye turns yellow. There are ways to treat jaundice.

What treatments might my baby need? — It depends on how early your baby was born, how much they weigh, and what health problems they have. Your baby might need to go to the neonatal intensive care unit, or "NICU." This is a part of the hospital for babies who need special care.

A premature baby might need one or more of the following:

A machine to help them breathe

Extra oxygen

A feeding tube (to deliver breast milk into the stomach)

Medicines

Surgery

Light therapy (to treat jaundice)

If your baby's condition is stable, the doctor or nurse might suggest that you hold your baby directly against your body for "skin-to-skin" contact.

Will my baby have long term problems? — Maybe. Some premature babies have health problems later in life, while others do not. The earlier a baby was born, the higher the chances of long-term problems.

Some of the problems that can affect premature babies later in life are:

Cerebral palsy – Cerebral palsy is a disorder that causes problems with movement and balance.

Vision problems – Sometimes, babies who were born very early (usually before 30 weeks of pregnancy) have problems with their eyes. If this isn't treated, it can cause trouble seeing. An eye doctor can check your baby's eyes and suggest treatments if needed.

Problems affecting the brain – Some premature babies grow up to have problems with thinking, learning, or memory, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). There are programs that can help babies and children whose problems are caught early.

Growth problems – Very premature babies are more likely to grow up to be shorter and weigh less than average.

Ongoing health issues – Babies who were born premature might get sick more often as children or adults.

How can I get support? — Having a premature baby can be hard and stressful. Social workers and hospital chaplains (spiritual counselors) can provide support during this difficult time. There are also support groups for parents of premature babies. It can be helpful to talk to other people who are going through the same things. Try to get help from these sources and from relatives and friends. That way you will have support both in the hospital and at home.

More on this topic

Patient education: What to expect in the NICU (The Basics)
Patient education: Preterm labor (The Basics)
Patient education: Jaundice in babies (The Basics)
Patient education: Newborn necrotizing enterocolitis (The Basics)
Patient education: Sepsis in newborn babies (The Basics)
Patient education: Cerebral palsy (The Basics)
Patient education: Having twins (The Basics)

Patient education: Deciding to breastfeed (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Pumping breast milk (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Sep 01, 2022.
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