Prematurity is a term used to describe when a baby is born early. Most pregnancies last around 40 weeks but some are shorter and some are longer. Babies that are born between 37 weeks and 42 weeks are called full term. Babies that are born before 37 weeks are called premature or preterm. They are affectionately known as “preemies.”
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 weeks and are known as late preterm births. Babies born between 32 and 33 weeks are known as moderately preterm and are 13% of all premature babies. Ten percent are born between 28 and 31 weeks, and six percent 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, respiratory and 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). LBW and VLBW 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. Those who survive may face lifelong problems including:
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.
What can I expect expect now that my child has been born prematurely?
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Centers for Disease Control
American Academy of Pediatrics
March of Dimes
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)