Facts About Premature Babies

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Did you know that one in 10 babies in the US is born premature? Worldwide, about 15 million births occur prematurely each year. Any baby born before 37 weeks gestation is considered premature. While medical advances have come a long way to save and improve the lives of babies born too soon, preemies are still at risk of health challenges and developmental delays. Despite this, preemies can and do thrive everyday. Read on to learn more facts about premature babies. 

The Cause is Often Unknown

We don’t always know why babies are born premature. We do know that there are several risk factors which make going into premature labor more likely:

  • Carrying more than one baby
  • Having previously given birth prematurely
  • Having cervical or uterine problems
  • Being underweight or overweight
  • Having a family history of prematurity

Some medical conditions, like diabetes, high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia, or pregnancy infections can also raise your risk of premature birth. 

Some risk factors are more in your control: 

  • Delaying a subsequent pregnancy until 18+ months postpartum
  • Quitting smoking and recreational drugs 
  • Reducing stress
  • Receiving adequate prenatal care 

However, even a textbook perfect pregnancy can unexpectedly lead to a premature birth. 

Medical Advancements Help Preemies Survive

All except the luckiest premature babies born healthy and very close to term will require time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The level of care a premature baby requires depends on their gestational age and any congenital issues. While the age of viability is typically considered 23-24 weeks, remarkably, a small handful of 22-week micro-preemies, weighing about half a pound at birth, have survived and thrived with extensive NICU care. 

Extensive life support for a very premature baby might include a ventilator or CPAP for breathing, an IV or NG tube for nutrition, an incubator for warmth, and medications to control hormone levels and other bodily functions. As they progress and gain strength, a breathing machine may be traded out for a nasal cannula to supply oxygen and introducing the breast or bottle. All NICU babies will have several monitors to track their vital signs like heart rate, breathing rate, and oxygen level. Some preemies require surgery to correct congenital anomalies. 

Kangaroo Care Improves Outcomes 

Kangaroo care is holding your premature baby upright on your chest, skin-to-skin, for long periods of time. While medical interventions have seen impressive advancements in saving preemies, good old-fashioned kangaroo care still improves outcomes for premature babies. If your baby is born premature, ask your NICU team when it is safe to begin kangaroo care. Holding your baby skin-to-skin improves both baby and parent’s vital signs, helps babies to regulate their temperature, and even stabilizes infant blood sugar levels. 

Preemies Can Thrive

Sadly, prematurity complications are the current leading cause of death in children under age 5. Preemies are more at risk of lifelong health challenges, disabilities, and developmental delays than their full term peers. In spite of this, a great many premature babies do go on to thrive. At 24 weeks, the rate of survival is about 60% and climbing. By 27 weeks, that number increases to 90%, and by 34 weeks babies have equal survival rates as those born full term. 

Some of history’s most brilliant minds have been born premature, including Albert Einstein, Sir Issac Newton, and Charles Darwin. 

Knowledge Saves Lives

While prematurity cannot always be prevented, knowing the signs of preterm labor can save lives and improve outcomes. With enough time, mothers in premature labor can receive steroid injections to improve their babies’ lung function. Sometimes, medications or interventions like cervical cerclage can stop or delay preterm birth. Signs of preterm labor include: increase in vaginal discharge, uterine contractions or cramping, dull backache, or bleeding. Knowing the facts about premature babies and preterm labor can help to save a life!