A baby is considered premature if he or she is born before the 37th week of pregnancy. A full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks, meaning a premature baby did not complete the last few weeks of development in the womb. Premature babies are often much smaller than full-term newborns because the last few weeks of pregnancy are when the baby grows and gains the most weight.
Many different factors can increase the risk of a premature birth. These may include:
Since prematurity encompasses a birth at any point before 37 weeks, the effects of a premature birth on a baby’s health can vary greatly depending on how early the baby is born. A baby born between 34 and 37 weeks (often referred to as late preterm or near-term) may be larger and have fewer health problems than a baby born before 34 weeks. Babies born before 34 weeks may have a much lower birth weight and underdeveloped organ systems.
Premature babies may have a variety of health problems and may need specialized care in the Riley at IU Health neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). With ongoing advancements in the level of care the NICU is able to provide, babies as young as 22 weeks’ gestation can survive with specialized treatments.
Premature babies may have the following symptoms:
Each baby experiences the health problems of prematurity slightly differently. Not every baby will have every symptom.
The treatments provided after a premature birth will depend on the baby’s specific health problems. Immediately after birth, doctors will start a series of procedures called neonatal resuscitation to stabilize your baby’s condition, address any immediate medical concerns and determine what further treatment is needed. Common treatments for premature babies can include:
Your baby will receive constant monitoring from the NICU team members to make sure his or her blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, body temperature and oxygen levels are normal. If an abnormality is detected, specialized NICU staff and doctors can provide immediate treatment. Depending on the health problems a premature baby has at birth, more specialists may join your baby’s care team at Riley at IU Health:
Many premature babies may need added specialized care, even when they are ready to leave the NICU. As part of the High-Risk Infant Follow-Up Care Program at Riley at IU Health, a multidisciplinary care team will work with you to form an individualized care plan for your baby’s unique health needs. Along with specialized doctors, this care team also includes physical and occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists who are able to help address day-to-day concerns such as feeding your baby.
Some premature babies may go on to experience developmental delays. The Developmental Pediatrics Department at Riley at IU Health will help coordinate more follow-up care as needed.
A premature birth can be an overwhelming experience for parents, but there are ways you can stay involved in your baby’s care. Ask to see your baby in the NICU and visit him or her often. While you may not pick your baby up until his or her condition is stable, you can still hold hands and touch often.
Once your baby no longer requires major support for organ systems, ask about “kangaroo care” or skin-to-skin care. Having moments of skin-to-skin contact with your baby can help keep him or her warm and provides an opportunity for mom and dad to bond with baby.
You may feed your baby once the doctor says it is safe to do so. NICU team members will help instruct you on the best way to do this, which may involve breast-feeding, bottle-feeding formula or using a breast pump to feed your baby breast milk through a bottle or feeding tube.
You may be ready to return home before your baby is ready to leave the NICU. Remember that your baby is receiving the best possible care, and know that you can continue to visit him or her and touch or hold hands as often as you like. When you return home, you may want to take the time to rest and prepare your home for your baby’s homecoming. This is also a good time to explain the situation to any other children you may have and help them prepare for your new baby’s arrival.
Continuing to visit your baby regularly in the NICU can make it easier to transition to at-home care when your baby is ready to come home with you. If you have family members or friends who would like to visit your baby, check with the NICU staff to find out how many visitors are allowed and whether there are age limits. During cold and flu season, fewer NICU visitors may be allowed in order to protect the babies.
Visit the following trusted resources for more information about prematurity.
Riley at IU Health offers a broad range of supportive services to make life better for families who choose us for their children's care.
The CDC provides information about fetal development during pregnancy, complications of prematurity and what expectant mothers can do to reduce the chances of having a preterm birth.
This U.S. National Library of Medicine site includes information about the outlook, possible complications and prevention of prematurity.
Riley at IU Health is a member of multiple research networks that work to improve standards of care for premature babies and advance available treatments. Parents of premature babies can choose to take part in research through the Neonatology Department, which helps to improve care for babies across the state of Indiana and around the world. To read research findings on prematurity, visit the Vermont Oxford Network (VON). VON is a network of hospitals that pool their research findings in the field of neonatology.