A baby born before 37 weeks of pregnancy is considered premature or born too early. Other terms used for prematurity are preterm and preemie. The number of premature births in the U.S increased from 1990 to 2006 and has since been declining. Twins and other multiples are more likely to be premature than single birth babies.
Many premature babies weigh less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces (2,500 grams). They may be called low birth weight. Even older, heavier preemies are still at risk for some problems.
Premature birth may have a number of causes. About 4 out of 5 premature births are because of issues that directly cause early labor and birth, such as those listed below. Other problems can make the mother or baby sick and need early delivery. Sometimes the exact cause for a premature birth is unknown. This can be true even though the mother may have done everything right during the pregnancy.
Four things that may cause premature labor are:
Many women have no known risk factors for premature birth. But several things can make premature birth more likely.
Women with these risk factors are more likely to deliver early:
In addition, women who develop any of the following problems during pregnancy are more likely to deliver early:
Certain developmental problems can put unborn babies at higher risk for prematurity.
Each baby may show slightly different symptoms. The following are the most common symptoms of a premature baby:
The symptoms of prematurity may look like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
A baby born before 37 weeks of pregnancy is considered premature or born too early. Prematurity is defined as:
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.
Treatment may include:
Premature babies are cared for by a neonatologist. This is a doctor with special training to care for newborns. Other specialists may also care for babies, depending on their health problems.
Premature babies are born before their bodies and organ systems have completely matured. These babies are smaller than they would have been if they were born at full term. They may need help breathing, eating, fighting infection, and staying warm. Extremely premature babies, those born before 28 weeks, are at the greatest risk for problems. Their organs and body systems may not be ready for life outside the mother’s uterus. And they may be too immature to function well.
Some of the problems premature babies may have include:
Premature babies can have long-term health problems as well. Generally, the more premature the baby, the more serious and long-lasting the health problems may be.
More babies are surviving even though they are born early and are very small. But it is best to prevent preterm labor if possible.
It's important to get good prenatal care while you are pregnant. Your healthcare provider can help find problems and suggest lifestyle changes to lower the risk for preterm labor and birth. Some ways to help prevent prematurity include:
Your healthcare provider may give you the hormone progesterone if you are at high risk for preterm birth. Progesterone can help if you have had a previous preterm birth.
Premature babies often need time to catch up in both development and growth. In the hospital, this catch-up time may mean learning to eat and sleep, as well as steadily gaining weight. Babies may stay in the hospital until they reach the pregnancy due date. They may be cared for in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
Talk with your baby's healthcare provider about when your baby will be able to go home. In general, babies can go home when they:
Before discharge, premature babies need an eye exam and hearing test to check for problems related to prematurity. You must be able to give care, including medicines and feedings, before your baby can go home. You will also need information about follow-up visits with the baby's healthcare provider and vaccines. Many hospitals have special follow-up healthcare programs for premature and low-birth-weight babies.
Even though they are otherwise ready to go home, some babies still have special needs. This includes things such as extra oxygen or tube feedings. You will learn how to take care of your baby if he or she needs these things. Hospital staff can help set up special home care.
Ask your baby’s healthcare provider about staying overnight in a parenting room at the hospital before your baby goes home. This can help you adjust to caring for your baby while healthcare providers are nearby for help and reassurance. You may also feel more confident taking your baby home when you know infant CPR and safety.
Premature babies are at increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). You should always put your baby down to sleep on his or her back.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
Article Last Updated: April 23, 2019
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