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Overview of Problems in Newborns

By Arthur E. Kopelman, MD, Professor of Pediatrics and Neonatology (Emeritus), The Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University

Although most infants are delivered at full term and have no problems, some infants may have medical problems related to factors that occur before birth, such as any health problems or habits of the mother. Examples of health problems are diabetes, high blood pressure, or preeclampsia (a condition that causes high blood pressure, swelling, and the presence of protein in the urine—see see Preeclampsia and Eclampsia) that directly affect the growth of the fetus and the health of the newborn. Habits, such as smoking, use of alcohol, and use of illicit drugs also can affect the growth of the fetus and lead to problems in the newborn. In addition to avoiding these substances, expectant mothers can improve the chances of having a healthy infant by getting care for medical problems, taking prenatal vitamins, receiving early prenatal care, and maintaining a healthy diet.

About 12% of infants are born before term (premature birth). The presence of more than one fetus (twins, triplets, quadruplets) and certain birth defects are likely to lead to early delivery. The earliest premature infants are likely to have problems with transition to newborn life, especially breathing problems caused by respiratory distress syndrome (see Respiratory Distress Syndrome). Accelerated or diminished rates of fetal growth also directly impact the health of the newborn. Rarely, infants may have other problems such as birth defects, infections, or abnormal levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood. Doctors may be able to anticipate many problems by monitoring fetal growth and development, particularly by using ultrasonography (see Tests for Gynecologic Disorders: Ultrasonography). Newborns that are likely to have serious problems are often delivered in a hospital with a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) where they can receive early, and if needed, intensive care from the time of birth.

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