What to Know if Your Baby Is Born Early

If your baby is a preemie, you'll have plenty of questions about how to give her the extra care she needs. A lot depends on how many weeks before her due date she's born. The earlier the birth, the more likely she is to have complications.

Doctors call a baby "premature" if she's born more than 3 weeks before the due date. Since preemies haven't had as long to develop inside the womb, some may have health problems and need to stay in the hospital longer than babies born on time.

What to Expect

At first, your baby might look different from other newborns you've seen. Premature babies are smaller than those born closer to their due date, with less fat. Your baby's head might look a little large for her body. Her skin might seem thin, and it could be covered in a fine hair, called lanugo. As she grows, she'll start to look more like other infants.

Your preemie may also cry softly or not at all, at first, since her breathing system isn't fully developed.

Premature babies are given extra care as soon as they're born. Your baby may need to see a neonatologist, a special type of pediatrician who treats preemies.

Your doctor may suggest your baby get special care in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). She may get hooked up to different machines, but remember, each piece of equipment plays an important role in getting your baby well and ready to go home.

For example, nurses may place your baby in an incubator, a plastic bassinet that keeps her warm. They may put sensors on her body to keep tabs on her heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature.

Your preemie may also need a machine called a ventilator to help her breathe. She could get fluids and nutrients through an IV. Nurses may put a feeding tube into your baby's nose to feed her breast milk or formula.

Even though your little one is in the NICU, you'll still get your chance to bond. Once your doctor gives the OK, you'll be able to touch, hold, and breastfeed or bottle-feed your baby.

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How early your baby is born makes a big difference in what kind of care she'll need. Babies born between 34 and 36 weeks of pregnancy are called late preterm. That's when most premature babies are born. Moderately preterm babies are born from 32 to 34 weeks, very preterm babies are born at less than 32 weeks, and extremely preterm babies are born at or before 25 weeks.

Not all premature babies have complications. And for those who do, today's advanced medical care means babies born very early are more likely to survive -- and thrive -- than ever before.

Possible Problems

Premature babies can have problems because their organs didn't have time to develop in the womb. Some of the most common conditions are:

Respiratory distress syndrome. It's a breathing disorder that happens because a preterm baby's lungs don't make enough of a liquid called surfactant, which helps keep them open. If your baby has this problem, doctors will treat her with an artificial version of the liquid and may put her on a ventilator to help her breathe.

Bronchopulmonary dysplasia. You may also hear your doctor call this condition chronic lung disease. Your baby will need oxygen for several weeks or months. Preemies with this problem often outgrow it as their lungs mature.

Apnea. It's a pause in breathing of more than 15 seconds. It often happens along with a slowed heart rate. Most preemies outgrow it before they leave the hospital.

Patent ductus arteriosus. This is a type of heart problem. Your baby has an opening between two major blood vessels leading from the heart. It often closes on its own.

Retinopathy of prematurity. This eye disease happens when your baby's retina -- a layer of nerve at the back of the eye that senses light -- isn't fully developed.

Jaundice. If your baby has this condition, her skin turns a yellowish color. It happens because a chemical called bilirubin builds up in her blood. Your baby may need treatment with special lights.

Premature babies are also more likely to have long-term disabilities like cerebral palsy.

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Going Home

How long until your baby goes home varies. It could be a few days or weeks after she's born.

Your baby's doctor will clear her to head home once your baby:

  • Breathes on her own
  • Can breastfeed or bottle-feed
  • Gains weight steadily
  • Stays warm by herself

Your baby might need special equipment even once she's settled in at home. Some babies use monitors, like those for sleep apnea, or continue to get oxygen. No matter what your baby needs, your nurses and doctors will teach you how to use the equipment before you leave. They should train you in infant CPR, too. And remember to get your baby any vaccines that the doctor recommends before she leaves the hospital.

Taking care of your preemie will likely take up much of your time and attention, but don't forget to take care of yourself, too. Get rest, eat healthy food, and accept help from friends and family.

It's normal to feel like you're on an emotional roller coaster. Think about joining a support group where you can talk to other parents who are going through the same things you are. You can also meet with a counselor to discuss the challenges you face.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 25, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

March of Dimes: "Premature Babies."

National Institutes of Health: "Premature Babies."

American Academy of Pediatrics: "Preemie."

Mayo Clinic: "Diseases and Conditions: Premature Birth."

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "What Is Respiratory Distress Syndrome?"

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