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Premature Babies

Dealing with premature labor and birth

By definition, a premature baby, or preemie, is any baby born before 37 weeks of gestation (term). Pre-term or premature births occur in just under 10 percent of all pregnancies in the United States.

Because they are born before the organs and systems have time to fully develop in the womb, premature babies often weigh significantly less than term babies, require specialized care in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and are at significantly greater risk for long-term disabilities and neonatal death. The types of disabilities and level of risk depend on how many weeks before term birth occurs. For example, if a premature baby is born at 32 weeks, the risk of persistent health problems is only 2%, but if he or she is born at 28 weeks, the risk increases to 10%. Similarly, because the lungs continue to develop right up until (term) birth, even those preemies born later can experience respiratory difficulties.

Common Problems among Premature Infants

Some of the most common difficulties faced by premature babies at or shortly after birth include:

  • apnea and bradycardia (stops in breathing accompanied by slowing of heart rate)
  • jaundice
  • respiratory distress syndrome
  • gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • anemia
  • intraventricular hemorrhage (IVH)
  • retinopathy of prematurity (ROP)
  • infections

Even after they are discharged from the NICU and sent home, premature infants require additional care and checkups. Doctors tend to keep an especially close eye on nervous system development, and preemies receive periodic hearing and vision tests in addition to the regular well-child visits and immunizations.

With proper medical attention, many premature babies can survive and even thrive. Those born after 32 weeks have the best chance of survival, while those born prior to 24 weeks (the minimum for viability in most countries) have 50% chance of death or permanent disability.

Premature Birth vs. Premature Labor

While premature or pre-term labor may lead to premature birth, it doesn't have to. Often, doctors can halt contractions with medication. They then usually administer a drug to speed up development of the brain and lungs, and put the mother on bed rest until the pregnancy progresses a little further.

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