Is this topic for you?
This topic is for people who want to know what to expect when a baby is born early. For information about early labor, its causes, and its treatment, see the topic Preterm Labor.
What is premature birth?
Pregnancy normally lasts about 40 weeks. A baby born 3 or more weeks early is premature. Babies who are born closer to their due dates tend to have fewer problems than babies born earlier. But even those who are born late preterm (closer to 37 weeks) are at risk for problems.
Doctors and nurses often call premature babies "preemies."
Having a premature baby may be stressful and scary. To get through it, you and your partner must take good care of yourselves and each other. It may help to talk to a spiritual advisor, counselor, or social worker. You may be able to find a support group of other parents who are going through the same thing.
Why is premature birth a problem?
When a baby is born too early, his or her major organs are not fully formed. This can cause health problems.
- Babies who are born closer to 32 weeks (just over 7 months) may not be able to eat, breathe, or stay warm on their own. But after these babies have had time to grow, most of them can leave the hospital.
- Babies born earlier than 26 weeks (just under 6 months) are the most likely to have serious problems. If your baby was born very small or sick, you may face hard decisions about treatment.
What causes premature birth?
Premature birth can be caused by a problem with the fetus, the mother, or both. Often the cause is never known. The most common causes include:
- Problems with the placenta.
- Pregnancy with twins or more.
- Infection in the mother.
- Problems with the uterus or cervix.
- Drug or alcohol use during pregnancy.
What kind of treatments might a premature infant need?
Premature babies who are moved to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) are watched closely for infections and changes in breathing and heart rate. Until they can maintain their body heat, they are kept warm in special beds called isolettes.
They are usually tube-fed or fed through a vein (intravenously), depending on their condition. Tube-feeding lasts until a baby is able to breathe, suck, and swallow and can take all feedings by breast or bottle.
Sick and very premature infants need special treatment, depending on what medical problems they have. Those who need help breathing are aided by an oxygen tube or a machine, called a ventilator, that moves air in and out of the lungs. Some babies need medicine. A few need surgery.
Breast milk gives your baby extra protection from infection. You can pump breast milk and bring it to the hospital for your baby.
NICU (say "NIK-yoo") nurses can teach you things you'll need to do at home to help your baby.
Does premature birth cause long-term problems?
Before the birth, it is hard to predict how healthy a premature baby will be. Most premature babies don't develop serious disabilities. But the earlier a baby is born, the higher the chances of problems. Work together with your doctor and other health providers to closely watch your baby's development and try to catch any problems early on.
- Most premature babies who are born between 32 and 37 weeks do well after birth. If your baby does well after birth, his or her risk of disability is low.
- Babies most likely to have long-term disability are those who are born before 26 weeks or who are very small, 2.2 lb (1000 g) or less. Long-term problems may include problems with thinking and learning or cerebral palsy.
What can you expect when you take your baby home?
When you're at home, don't be surprised if your baby sleeps for shorter periods of time than you expect. Premature babies are not often awake for more than brief periods. But they wake up more often than other babies. Because your baby is awake for only short periods, it may seem like a long time before he or she responds to you.
Premature babies get sick more easily than full-term infants. So it's important to keep your baby away from sick family members and friends. Make sure your baby gets regular checkups and shots to protect against serious illness. Be current on your immunizations and ask other people who will be near your baby to be immunized too.