What is a preterm baby?
A preterm baby, also called a premature baby, is born too early. A full pregnancy lasts 37 to 40 weeks, so a preterm baby is born anytime before the 37th week of pregnancy.
The earlier babies are, the more likely they are to have complications at birth and later. Babies born before 23 weeks probably won't live.
Because preterm babies had less time to grow in the womb, their organs are not fully developed
Preterm babies may have trouble breathing and feeding and are more likely to get infections
Many preterm babies have no long-term problems
Babies born very early have a higher chance of long-term health problems such as cerebral palsy Cerebral Palsy Cerebrum (cerebral) is a medical word for the large part of the brain that controls muscles. Palsy is a problem moving muscles. CP is a brain condition that affects the muscles. It makes muscles... read more , hearing problems, or learning disorders Learning Disorders Learning disorders are problems with the brain’s ability to get, remember, or use information. These problems make it hard to focus and do well in school. Children with learning disorders often... read more
Babies born very early may need to be in an incubator to keep warm, be on a ventilator Ventilators Ventilation is the same thing as breathing. It's the movement of air into and out of your lungs. Sometimes your breathing needs to be assisted by a ventilator. A ventilator is a machine that... read more to help them breath, and be fed through a tube in their nose
Preterm babies stay in the hospital until they can eat normally, are gaining weight, and no longer need an incubator
Seeing your doctor regularly during pregnancy lowers your chance of having a preterm baby
What causes a baby to be born too early?
Most of the time, there's no clear reason why a baby is born too early.
The chances of having a preterm baby are higher if the mother:
Had a previous preterm baby
Has had multiple miscarriages or abortions
Has other health problems, such as preeclampsia Preeclampsia and Eclampsia Preeclampsia is a certain type of high blood pressure that happens during pregnancy. The placenta (afterbirth) is the organ in your uterus (womb) that feeds the fetus (baby). Preeclampsia can... read more or heart or kidney disease
Is having twins or triplets
Used in vitro fertilization (IVF) to get pregnant
Doesn't get good prenatal care
What are symptoms of a preterm baby?
Preterm babies look a little different than full-term babies. They usually:
Weigh between 1 and 5.5 pounds (500 to 2500 grams)
Have a head that looks large compared to the rest of their body
Lack fat under their skin
Have thin, shiny, pink skin
Have veins visible through their skin
Preterm babies often:
Breathe quickly and may pause for seconds at a time (apnea)
Have trouble regulating their body temperature
Have trouble sucking and swallowing
What complications do preterm babies have?
Preterm babies get complications because their organs aren't fully developed. The earlier they are, the more complications they get.
Brain complications: Weak breathing, trouble sucking and swallowing, brain bleeding Bleeding in and around the brain Birth injury is damage that occurs as a result of physical pressure during the birthing process, usually during transit through the birth canal. Many newborns have minor injuries during birth... read more
Digestive tract complications: Spitting up too much, bleeding intestines Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC) Necrotizing enterocolitis is injury to the inner surface of the intestine. This disorder occurs most often in newborns who are premature and/or seriously ill. The abdomen may be swollen, stools... read more , yellow skin (jaundice Jaundice in Newborns Jaundice is a yellow color of the skin and the whites of the eyes that's caused by the buildup of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a yellow substance your body makes when it breaks down... read more )
Immune system complications: Infections in their bloodstream (sepsis) or around their brain (meningitis)
Lung complications: Lungs clogged with fluid (respiratory distress syndrome)
Eye complications: Bleeding and scarring in the retina (the seeing part of the eyes), a problem called retinopathy of prematurity
Most complications go away after a while. But babies who had severe complications may keep having problems with their breathing or vision.
How do doctors treat preterm babies?
Doctors will care for your baby in the hospital in a special unit for sick newborns. It's called a NICU, which stands for neonatal intensive care unit. They'll also:
Put your baby in an incubator to help keep the baby warm
Give medicine into your baby's lungs to help your baby breathe, and sometimes put a tube in the baby's nose or mouth attached to a breathing machine (ventilator)
Feed your baby through a vein or feeding tube until your baby can suck and swallow
Put the baby under special ultraviolet (UV) lights to treat jaundice
How can I keep my baby from being born too early?
You can lower the chance of your baby being born too early by:
Going to all of your prenatal doctors' visits
Following a healthy diet
Not drinking alcohol
Not using tobacco or drugs
If you go into labor early, your doctor may give you medicine to:
Slow down your labor
Help your baby’s lungs develop faster