One in 20 babies are born prematurely, which means before the 37th week of gestation. Most of these babies develop normally without any problems. But the earlier the baby is born, the more care it will need.
There is no significant risk of health complications if a child is born up to three weeks prematurely. A baby born a few weeks prematurely can often be treated at an ordinary maternity ward and brought home a few days after birth. What is most important is that the baby should be able to eat, get plenty of oxygen and maintain its body temperature.
Specialist care at the neonatal unit
Babies that require extra monitoring for any reason are cared for at a neonatal unit where, among other things, the baby's oxygen intake, temperature, blood sugar, nutrient supply and brain development are monitored.
Babies born prematurely are underdeveloped and not fully prepared for the environment outside the womb. Among other things, they may be extra sensitive to various infections.
Premature babies are initially put in an incubator
Premature babies have very little body fat to insulate them. Moreover, their body's heat regulation system is underdeveloped, so they need help maintaining the correct body temperature. To prevent them becoming too cold, they are kept in an incubator or a heated bed in an observation room that resembles the womb environment, with dim lighting and low noise levels.
These days, the parents are recommended to sit for long periods with the baby resting against their chest with skin-to-skin contact. This method is known as "kangaroo care" and has a very beneficial effect on the infant's development, bonding and recovery.
Probe and drip, then breastfeeding
Preterm babies can start normal breastfeeding at 34 weeks. Until then, the baby is fed milk by means of a probe, or via a drip through its nose directly into the stomach. The baby is usually fed with breast milk, either from its mother or a donor, and may be reinforced with vitamins and other nutrients.
Very early preterm babies
Babies born before 32 weeks of pregnancy usually receive intensive care. Roughly one percent of babies are born before 29 weeks.
The baby's chances of survival depend largely on how developed its lungs are. The earliest a baby can be born and have a chance of surviving is around 22 weeks. Approximately half of babies born at 23 weeks survive, while eight out of ten babies born at 25 weeks survive.
An infant born this early requires careful monitoring 24 hours a day. Its brain is still developing and risks being damaged by lack of oxygen or haemorrhage. The infant may need to be kept on a respirator, treated with CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) or given extra oxygen in the incubator. However, a preterm baby's brain has an incredible ability to heal itself.
Reasons for preterm birth
There are many reasons why a baby may be born prematurely, for instance a weak cervix, an infection or some other illness that affects the baby. Preterm birth can also be caused by pre-eclampsia.
It is often unclear why the baby was born prematurely.
A preterm birth can come as shock to parents who were not expecting their baby to be born for another few weeks - or months. It is important to talk to a paediatrician and other medical professionals to process and understand what happened and what to expect after the delivery.
The prognosis for preterm babies is constantly improving
Research shows that over 90 percent of children born prematurely during the 1980s are healthy and attended ordinary schools. Care for preterm infants is constantly improving, and research continues in this area. As a result, babies born prematurely today often have a good prognosis.
Needless to say, the newborn child's parents are closely involved in its care at the neonatal department.
Read more about preterm babies in our free app, The Pregnancy Book.