What is a Premature Birth?

A premature birth is one that takes place before 37 weeks. Modern neonatal medical techniques are very advanced and pre-term babies have the best chance of survival more than ever before, and today many survive their tumultuous arrival into the world.

Premature babies are looked after in a Special Care Nursery in hospital until they are strong enough to go home.  It is difficult to determine if a child will suffer long-term effects of being born early and it is a case of watching and waiting.

Initially there will most likely be developmental delays, but this is completely normal and as such a special birth-age is created for a preterm baby so their early arrival is taken in to consideration. For example, if a baby was born eight weeks early, at three months old he will be ‘four weeks corrected’, as opposed to being 12 weeks old.

The Causes of Premature Birth

The causes of premature birth can vary, and often doctors are unsure why some babies are born early. Certain lifestyle choices can increase the risk of premature birth, such as smoking, severe stress and overwork, drug and alcohol abuse, or poor weight management (including both weight gain and loss). Poor prenatal care can also be a contributing factor.

But preterm birth still occurs when mothers are doing all the right things, and are being as responsible and healthy as possible.

Other issues that increase the risk of preterm birth can include:

  • Anatomical problems such as with the structure of the uterus.
  • Problems with the cervix – known as an ‘incompetent cervix’, where the cervix is not strong enough to hold the pregnancy once the baby grows past a certain weight.
  • Placental problems such as placenta previa or placental abruption.
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Infection
  • Certain chronic illnesses
  • Age can also be a factor. Women under 19 or over 35 are statistically more prone to premature birth.
  • More than one baby also increases the risk.

Caring For Premature Infants

Babies born early need to be looked after in hospital. Premature babies lack body fat and their lungs tend to be underdeveloped, as these are the last organs to grow inside the womb. A warm and germ-free environment is required to protect the baby while they grow strong enough to live in the outside world. Special Care Nurseries are equipped with incubators designed specifically for pre-term babies.

Like all babies, the best source of nutrition for a premature baby is breast milk. However, breastfeeding a premature infant can be quite difficult. If possible the mother should express her breast milk so her baby can get the best possible start in life. Sometimes this is not possible and hospitals will have the next best alternative available for the baby.

When the baby is strong enough the hospital will attempt to establish breastfeeding between the mother and the baby. Some babies can take the breast after several weeks in an incubator, many get too used to bottles to be able to do that. The hospital will be prepared for any eventuation, regardless of what the outcome is. Formula that is fortified with extra calcium and phosphorous to promote growth will be given to any preterm baby that does not have access to breast milk. There are also milk banks set up to try to counter these circumstances, to try and give all preterm babies the best possible chance at health.

For additional help, you may want to join a premature babies support group, where you can receive advice and encouragement from other parents.

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