A premature baby is one who is born before 37 weeks of gestation. Because the baby is not considered full-term, there is an increased risk of complications for the baby. If you are at risk for a premature delivery or already have a premature baby, understanding the potential complications helps you prepare for the coming weeks and months.
The gestational age of the baby at the time of birth often affects the severity and type of complications. The closer to the 37th week mark a baby is born, the less likely she is to have severe complications, but she still runs a higher risk for death during the first year than a full-term baby, according to the March of Dimes. A baby born before 28 weeks is at risk for the most complications and will likely spend a long time in the NICU after birth.
Because the baby is not full-term, a premature baby has under developed organs, which make it difficult for the body to function normally. The lungs are a major concern with premature babies. Under-developed lungs make it difficult or impossible for the baby to breathe on his own. Lungs that aren’t mature leave the baby open to other complications, including respiratory distress syndrome and bronchopulmonary dysplasia, which is a deterioration of the lungs from the respirator. Babies younger than 28 weeks lack the ability to coordinate sucking, swallowing and breathing, making intravenous feedings necessary. An under-developed digestive system makes it difficult for some babies to absorb nutrients. Premature babies also struggle with body temperature regulation and might have difficulty moving their bodies.
The immature immune system leaves premature babies more susceptible to any germs they encounter. Even a minor illness could develop into a serious infection for preemies. Meningitis, sepsis and pneumonia are just a few of the infections possible. Limiting the baby’s exposure to any infections helps reduce the risk of these complications.
A wide range of complications can arise. The complications vary from one preemie to the next. Problems with the heart and brain are a possibility. Bleeding or fluid in the brain and a low heart rate are two common complications for premature babies. These infants might also experience apnea, which means there are short periods when she stops breathing. There is also a risk for long-term problems, such as vision difficulties, developmental delays, hearing difficulties and cerebral palsy.
Proper prenatal care and healthy choices during pregnancy reduce the risk of a premature birth, but an early delivery cannot be prevented in all cases. Women who have previously had a premature birth might receive progesterone shots during subsequent pregnancies to avoid another premature delivery. When a premature birth is imminent, doctors often use corticosteroids to help the baby’s lungs mature. The drugs are most effective when given at least 24 hours before the baby is born and may be given two or more times before the birth. The doctor might also try to delay the pregnancy if possible even for a few days.