Prematurity

Prematurity is a term used to describe when a baby is born early. A baby is considered premature if it is born before the 37 weeks of gestation are completed. Prematurity accounts for 1/3 of infant deaths in the United States.

More than half a million (500,000) babies are born prematurely in the US each year. About 70% of those babies are born between 34 and 36 (6 or 7) weeks and are known as late preterm births. Babies born between 32 and 34 weeks are known as moderately preterm and are 13% of all premature babies. 10% are born between 28 and 32 weeks and 6% at less than 28 weeks. These are known as very preterm babies. They are very small and may not be ready to survive outside the womb.

Even though all premature babies are at risk for health problems, those born before 32 weeks face the highest risk. Babies that are born prematurely face a number of problems, including low birth weight, breathing difficulties and underdeveloped organs and organ systems.

Babies born before term tend to have low birth weight (LBW), which means they weigh less than 2,500 grams (about 5 pounds, 8 ounces). Very low birth weight (VLBW) describes an infant that weighs less than 1,500 grams (about 3 pounds, 5 ounces). Extremely low birth weight (ELBW) refers to a birth weight less than 1,000 grams. LBW, VLBW and ELBW infants are at higher risk than other infants for a variety of problems, including cerebral palsy, sepsis (a type of blood infection), chronic lung disease and death. These infants are also at higher risk for hypothermia, or low body temperature, which can be dangerous.

Prematurity is not a disability itself, but a condition that is a major cause of both intellectual and physical disabilities and other chronic health problems. Sadly, prematurity is also the leading cause of death for newborns. Many who survive enjoy typical health and development but some who survive face lifelong problems including:

  • Intellectual disabilities and/or other learning difficulties
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Breathing and respiratory problems, such as chronic lung disease
  • Vision and hearing loss
  • Feeding and digestive problems

Some babies will require special care and spend weeks or months hospitalized in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The NICU is a special, caring environment for sick and premature babies, with specialized equipment designed for infants and a hospital staff who have special training in newborn care.

There is currently no cure for prematurity, but researchers are working on ways to prevent these early births. Modern medicine has made it possible for some of the very smallest babies to survive and many children, particularly those who are late pre-term births, often catch up to their peers by the time school starts.

For those babies who were born very early and may have continuing problems, there are different treatment options available such as early intervention, therapy, medications, surgery, education and support.

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Resources:

Centers for Disease Control
Premature Birth

American Academy of Pediatrics
Premie Milestones Brochure

Kids Health
A Primer on Premies

March of Dimes
About Prematurity

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)

Preterm Labor and Birth