Premature babies, or preterm infants, are born before the 37th week of gestation rather than staying the full 40 weeks of gestation in the womb. Premature babies may have less-developed organs and systems, which can spark problems with breathing, eating or maintaining a healthy body. The earlier the premature baby is born, the greater the chance of his having developmental issues and health problems.
There are three methods for measuring the age of premature babies. Some people use chronological age, measured from the point of birth. Others use gestational age, measured from the moment of conception. Most people prefer to use corrected age, which is figured by subtracting the number of weeks the baby was born prematurely from his current age. So, if the baby was born 10 weeks early and has a current chronological age of 6 months, subtract 10 weeks from 6 months to determine the corrected age. This figure is key, because it is the one that is used to watch for age-appropriate developmental milestones. Your child’s immunization schedule, however, remains the same, unless there are health complications preventing it.
A premature birth can have diverse effects on a baby, among them problems with growth, the development of organs, the maturity of the motor system, neurodevelopment and issues with social development and interaction. Heart and lung development problems can affect the child’s respiration and circulation. Motor system problems can affect later gross and fine motor-skill development such as walking or writing. Problems with brain development may affect sensory skills and learning.
The go-to experts for care and monitoring of a premature baby is your pediatrician and primary-care facility. In addition, many state and federal programs exist to support a premature baby’s development; the most common types are early intervention programs. For additional support and advice, parents may also want to consult the Premature Child website (see Resources below), which has articles, forums, tips and resources for parents of premature babies.
Parents and family of premature children often express worry about ongoing developmental challenges. The fact is, if a baby was born 1 to 2 months early, by the time he is 2 years old he will typically have the growth and development of his chronological peers. For babies born 3 months early, the catching-up phase may take longer.
Parents, family and educators can do many things to support a premature baby’s development. Reduce stimulus and keep surroundings calm. Swaddle him to add security and warmth. Feed premature babies with their heads higher than their stomachs. Give them time to breathe and rest during feeding. Maintain regular appointments with doctors and any special caregivers. Watch your baby for signs of infection. Try different methods for comforting premature babies, such as massaging them. Shop for safety gear that is intended for premature infants. For example, the shield harness on car seats is typically too high for premature infants, and must be removed. Remember to place your baby on his back to sleep.