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Premature Babies

Premature Babies arrive before completing 37 weeks of pregnancy. This pregnancy website guide lists the causes and effects of preterm birth.

Preterm birth is on the rise, these are babies who have been born too soon. Some mothers have elected for voluntary caesarean section which is normally carried out at least 2 weeks before full term. Always try to delay the birth as much as possible until after 37 weeks.

Low birth weight babies

In general, any baby weighing less than 2kg at birth is probably smaller than he should be and may need special care. About two-thirds of low birth weight babies are due to premature birth, and a third are small-for-dates babies.

Did you know that the foetus gains about 0.5kg every 2 weeks towards the end of the pregnancy? The prime indicator at birth of long-term health is birth weight. The baby should not be too heavy nor too light. The smartest kid I ever saw (At 5 months, she was crawling at fast speed, she could say 'zebra' in chinese at 10 months and sing the song 'Kookaburra' at 12 months) was a 2 week overstayer.

The preemie baby being born prematurely may be spontaneous (rupture of membranes leading to onset of labour) or planned (induced labour or caesarian birth when mother or child is in danger).

Causes of Preterm Birth

  • Short time gaps between births. See Trying to Conceive for tips on Birth Spacing.
  • Multiple pregnancies (twins, triplets or more)
  • Adolescent or late pregnancies
  • When a woman is obese or underweight
  • Infections and chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure
  • Smoking during pregnancy and excessive drinking
  • Stress and excessive physical work

Effects on Premature babies

The pace of an unborn baby's development is geared to his being born at full term (40 weeks). If for any reason, he is born before 37 weeks, he may not yet be ready for life in the outside world. Health risks that a preemie baby may face include common ones such as jaundice, difficulty regulating his body temperature and feeding. He may also be more susceptible to infection or have a low blood sugar level (hypoglycaemia). He will need iron and calcium supplements to remedy a lack of these essential minerals.

Because their brains and other internal organs are not fully developed, premature babies who survive may face a lifetime of disability.

  • Neuro-developmental effects

Preterm children may have problems with cognitive processes such as problem solving, visual memory, planning and multi-tasking. Severe disorders can include motor impairment and cerebral palsy.

  • Hearing loss
  • Visual disorders

Increased hypermetropia and myopia (long and short sightedness)

  • Cardiovascular problems

Increased blood pressure and asthma rates, poorer lung function

  • Respiratory problems or difficulty breathing

Reduced exercise tolerance

  • Psychiatric and behavioural problems

Prone to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), anxiety and depression

Stages of Prematurity

Babies born before 22 weeks have less chance of surviving as their vital organs are not developed enough.

Babies born less than 28 weeks are extremely preterm.

Babies born between 28 and less than 32 weeks are considered very preterm.

Babies born between 32 and less than 37 weeks are moderate to late preterm. 84% of all preterm births occur at 32 and 36 weeks, and most can survive with enough care.

37 to 42 weeks is considered full term. Whew!

It is more common for boys to be born prematurely than girls, 55% boys to 45% girls.

How to help your premature baby

Here are some suggestions on what you and your partner can do to help your premature baby thrive.

  • Try to spend as much time with him as possible. He needs the same amount of love and attention as a full term baby.
  • Touch and fondle your baby, both in and out of the incubator, whenever and as soon as you can. Cuddling, stroking and gentle caressing have positive benefits in helping him grow and thrive.
  • Express your breast milk at regular feeding times for your baby. Not only will you be giving him the best possible food, but you will be establishing your milk supply for when he is able to suck on his own.
  • Research shows that the colostrum and breast milk of a mother whose baby is preterm contain more of certain nutrients than those of mothers whose children are born at term. This makes up for the preterm baby's lack of nutrients that he would otherwise have received in the womb. A premature baby fed on his mother's breast milk develops at almost exactly the same rate as he would if he were still in her uterus.
  • Get involved with your baby's care. Ask the nurse to show you how to help with feeding, washing and changing him. This will both help you to bond with him and give you confidence in caring for him.
  • Don't struggle with feelings of anxiety, ignorance or worry. Seek information from the medical staff and support from your partner.

The youngest survivor recorded is Amillia Taylor, born in 2006 in Florida at 21 weeks and 6 days. She was 23cm long and weighed only 283g, less than a can of Coke.

Famous early babies include :

  • Sir Isaac Newton born in 1642. His mother reported that he could fit into a quart mug (1 quart is about 1 litre).
  • Sir Winston Churchill born in 1874 at 30 weeks gestation.

Recent Breakthroughs

2009 University of Melbourne : To treat the problem of preterm babies having a higher risk of cerebral palsy, Magnesium sulphate was given to women at risk of preterm birth to protect the brain of the foetus. This improves blood flow and prevents damage to cells. Further research is needed to reduce side effects such as flushing, nausea and vomiting in mothers.

2009 University of Adelaide : To treat the problem of preterm babies lacking a major lipid in the brain - the omega 3 fatty acid called Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), high doses of fatty acids in the form of tuna oil capsules were given to lactating mothers with premature babies. This aids mental development.

2011 Wayne State University : Women at high risk of preterm birth have shorter cervixes and may be deficient in progesterone, a natural hormone that sustains pregnancies. Preterm birth rates can be halved by treating the women with progesterone in a low-cost gel form.

2012 Trinity College Dublin : Problem - Mothers who deliver their babies early have higher levels of their baby's DNA in their blood. A protein in her immune system detects the DNA as foreign, causing an inflammatory reaction that leads to early delivery. It was found that the reaction can be blocked by drugs such as chloroquin.

The information provided is based partially on the World Health Organization's first global report on Preterm births.


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