Roughly ten percent of babies in the U.S. are born premature — more than three weeks before their anticipated due date. While premature babies have more complex medical needs than those born at full term, advancements in neonatal care have made it possible for even the tiniest preemies to thrive.
If children are in your future, learning about premature birth can help put your mind at ease by preparing for all possibilities. Here’s what all expecting parents should know.
Why Are Some Babies Born Premature?
There isn’t always an identifiable reason for premature birth, but in some cases doctors are able to pinpoint a cause. For example, if you have diabetes, high blood pressure, heart or kidney problems, or certain types of infections, your risk of premature birth can be increased.
Other factors that could lead to prematurity include anatomical differences in your body, such as a low-lying placenta, an atypical womb shape, or being an underweight birthing parent. Multiples (including twins and triplets) also face a higher risk of premature birth. Smoking, alcohol, and drug use are other risk factors.
What Health Issues Can Occur in Premature Babies?
Various health complications can develop in premature babies, some of which depend on when the baby is actually born. When it comes to defining timelines, a newborn can be:
- Late preterm: born between 34 and 36 weeks
- Moderately preterm: born between 32 and 34 weeks
- Very preterm: born between 28 and 32 weeks
- Extremely preterm: born before 28 weeks
No matter how early they arrive, because babies born prematurely may not have fully developed by the time of their birth, they may experience a variety of symptoms including:
- Small size
- Sharper features due to reduced body fat
- Low temperature
- Difficulties with breathing or feeding
- Hearing or vision problems
There are also more serious short- and long-term complications that may occur, including issues with major organ groups, metabolism, and ongoing developmental issues.
How Are Premature Babies Cared For?
Many of the issues that occur when babies’ systems aren’t fully developed can be prevented or managed in a NICU setting. For instance, since preemies don’t have as much body fat to keep independently warm, they’re often placed in incubators to help them maintain a stable body temperature. Very small preemies may also be fed through intravenous nourishment until their digestive system has developed enough to accept breastmilk. Jaundice — a blood problem that occurs when too much bilirubin builds up in the bloodstream — can often be managed effectively by placing preemies under special lighting. NICU nurses and doctors also use machines to consistently track babies’ vital signs, including their blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, and breathing.
When it becomes safe to do so, skin-to-skin contact between parents and their newborn can be another impressively effective component of preemie care. Known as “kangaroo care,” this approach entails holding your baby directly against your bare skin. Preemies who receive kangaroo care earlier often experience better medical outcomes than those who are introduced to it later, as parental closeness can regulate babies’ heartbeat and temperature, and stimulate an interest in feeding. Parents benefit too, as skin-to-skin contact stimulates the hormones needed to produce breast milk and has a calming effect which can reduce stress levels.
Whatever care they receive, most preemies are able to be discharged from the NICU when they hit key developmental milestones, including feeding on their own and breathing without supplemental oxygen. Special follow-up care to monitor their development and receive early intervention support if necessary may also become part of your baby’s plan.
The uncertainties that come with pregnancy can be overwhelming, but Rosa Gynecology is by your side through every step. If you’re pregnant or trying to be, set up an appointment with one of our caring providers online or by calling 770-487-9604.