A premature infant is a baby born before 37 weeks gestation.
At birth, a baby is classified as one of the following:
If a woman goes into labor before 37 weeks, it is called preterm labor. Often, the cause of preterm labor is unknown. Multiple pregnancy (twins, triplets, etc.) makes up about 15% of all premature births.
Health conditions and events in the mother may contribute to preterm labor. Examples are:
Different pregnancy-related problems increase the risk of preterm labor:
Other factors that make preterm labor and a premature delivery more likely include:
A premature infant's organs are not fully developed. The infant needs special care in a nursery until the organ systems have developed enough to sustain life without medical support. This may take weeks to months.
A premature infant will have a lower birth weight than a full-term infant. Common physical signs of prematurity include:
Not all premature babies will have these characteristics.
The infant may have difficulty breathing and maintaining body temperature.
Common tests performed on a premature infant include:
When premature labor develops and cannot be stopped, the health care team will prepare for a high-risk birth. The mother may be moved to a center that specifically cares for premature infants in, for example, a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
After birth, the baby is admitted to a high-risk nursery. The infant is placed under a warmer or in a clear, heated box called an incubator, which controls the air temperature. Monitoring machines track the baby's breathing, heart rate, and level of oxygen in the blood.
Infants are usually unable to coordinate sucking and swallowing before 34 weeks gestation. Therefore, the baby may have a small, soft feeding tube placed through the nose or mouth into the stomach. In very premature or sick infants, nutrition may be given through a vein until the baby is stable enough to receive all nutrition in the stomach. (See: Neonatal weight gain and nutrition)
If the infant has breathing problems:
Nursery care is needed until the infant is able to breathe without extra support, feed by mouth, and maintain body temperature and a stable or increasing body weight. In very small infants, other problems may complicate treatment and a longer hospital stay may be needed.
There are multiple support groups for parents of premature babies. Ask the social worker in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Prematurity used to be a major cause of infant deaths. Improved medical and nursing techniques have increased the survival of premature infants. The longer the pregnancy, the greater the chance of survival. Of babies born at 28 weeks, at least 90% survive.
Prematurity can have long-term effects. Many premature infants have medical, developmental, or behavioral problems that continue into childhood or are permanent. The more premature an infant and the smaller the birth weight, the greater the risk of complications. However, it is impossible to predict a baby's long-term outcome based on gestational age or birth weight.
Possible complications that may occur while in the hospital include:
Possible long-time complications include:
Call your health care provider if you are pregnant and believe you are going into labor prematurely.
If you are pregnant and not receiving prenatal care, call your health care provider or your state's department of health. Most state health departments have programs that provide prenatal care to mothers, whether or not they have insurance or are able to pay.
One of the most important steps to preventing prematurity is to receive prenatal care as early as possible in the pregnancy, and to continue such care until the baby is born. Statistics clearly show that early and good prenatal care reduces the chance of premature birth.
Premature labor can sometimes be treated or delayed by a medication that blocks uterine contractions. Many times, however, attempts to delay premature labor are not successful.
Betamethasone (a steroid medication) given to mothers in premature labor can reduce the severity of some of the prematurity complications on the baby.
Preterm infant; Preemie; Premie