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On Premature Babies

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A Primer for Prematurity Awareness

Premature babies are at risk for severe health problems and lifelong disabilities. One in eight babies is born prematurely in the United States, and while the rate has declined 11 percent over the past seven years, it remains too high. Awareness and education can help lower the rate.

What is prematurity?

A premature baby, sometimes called a preemie, is one born at least three weeks before the due date. Full term is typically considered 40 weeks, so this means a premature baby is one born earlier than 37 weeks into a pregnancy.

What causes a premature birth?

There is no one cause of preterm delivery, but certain conditions and risk factors are associated with an early birth. Prematurity can occur after complications during pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes, hypertension, heart or kidney problems, an infection or bleeding. Carrying twins or triplets also increases the risk of prematurity, as do certain lifestyle factors, including poor nutrition, smoking, drug use or excessive alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Who is at risk for delivering prematurely?

Women younger than 19 or older than 40 have a higher incidence of early deliveries. If you’ve had a premature delivery previously, you may be a risk to have one again. However, any pregnant woman, regardless of her age or history, may deliver preterm, with or without presenting any of the risk factors.

Maternity care providers encourage women to go the full 40 weeks during pregnancy unless there are medical reasons for inducing labor early.

What does prematurity mean for the baby?

Preemies have unique needs, usually correlated to how premature they are born. They often spend time after delivery in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), which can provide a safe and hospitable environment to encourage growth and development. Because premature babies often lack the body fat to maintain their body temperature, they may be placed in incubators or on radiant warmers. And because their digestive systems, like their other internal organs, are not fully developed, they may receive special feedings.

When a baby is born very preterm, he or she may spend weeks or months in the NICU and can face lifelong problems such as cerebral palsy, breathing and respiratory problems, vision problems, hearing loss and digestive problems.

What does premature delivery mean for the mother?

When a mother delivers prematurely, she may be caught unaware by the warning signs of labor, which include:

  • Contractions every 10 minutes or more often
  • Change in vaginal discharge
  • Pelvic pressure
  • Low, dull backache
  • Abdominal cramps

Depending on how early preterm labor is, caregivers may attempt to delay delivery or they could induce labor or perform a C-section.

Premature babies require special care and immediate attention when they are born, but with adept medical care and the latest advances, more preemies survive and thrive than ever before.

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