Premature Baby Development: Questions and Concerns

It is quite natural for the parents of a premature baby to have lots of questions for doctors once the stress of labour and delivery has subsided. More often than not, those questions are related to the long-term prognosis of their babies. For example, parents want to know if their babies are likely to suffer permanent health problems as a result of being born prematurely.

Parents should be aware right from the start that there are never any guarantees a baby will be born perfectly healthy. In fact, perfect health is a rarity in labour and delivery. Still, premature babies are at a greater risk of chronic or permanent health problems that could very well affect future development. Parents should never be afraid to ask questions if they have concerns.

If the future holds a premature baby for your family, you may find yourself asking questions like:

  • Will my baby have long-term health problems?
  • Will my baby develop as quickly as other babies?
  • How quickly will my child learn to crawl, walk, and talk?
  • Is my child likely to have difficulty in school?
  • If my child’s development is hindered, is there any help available?

The answer to the last question is probably the most important of all for new parents. Yes, there is plenty of help available for parents raising a child whose development has been negatively affected due to premature birth. Help is available through the NHS, private counsellors and therapists, support groups, charities, local schools, and more.

Early-Stage Growth and Development

With the exception of babies born near the 37-week mark, premature babies tend to be behind their full-term counterparts for the simple reason that their bodies have not had the same time to develop in utero. One of the first things parents will notice is how tiny their precious baby is. And along with small size comes lower birth weight as well.

Assuming there are no medical complications to interrupt early-stage growth and development, most premature babies catch-up – in terms of putting on weight and growing in height – as they get older. Some children may always be on the smaller side, but it is generally not enough to distinguish that child as having been born prematurely once he or she reaches adulthood.

Doctors and midwives are concerned primarily about lung development and birth weight as these relate to early-stage development. Both factors weigh heavily into whether a premature baby will experience normal physical and mental development over time.

Parents should be aware of two important things that will be in play before their premature babies leave the hospital:

  • Preventive Measures – If a mother’s doctor or midwife suspects that a baby is at risk of premature birth, preventative measures will likely be suggested to minimise any impact of preterm labour and delivery. For example, a doctor might want to immediately start administering steroids to encourage the baby’s lungs to develop faster. Early diagnosis and preventative measures go a long way toward making sure the premature baby develops properly after birth.
  • Hospital Care – There are times when a premature baby’s health is so fragile that he or she must receive intensive care in a neonatal unit. Unfortunately, sometimes it is this very care that leads to physical or mental developmental disabilities. Fortunately, most of the delayed development that results from hospital treatment is only temporary. Kids do eventually catch up.

Monitoring Development via Milestones

It used to be that infant development was measured according to standards known as percentiles. We have since discovered that this is not the right way to go with premature babies. So now, professionals urge parents to pay attention to certain developmental milestones instead. As long as all milestones are eventually reached, it is assumed a baby is doing fine. If a milestone is missed, it could be an indication that the baby needs some additional help or treatment.

What are milestones? Think of them as developmental targets based on average age, birth weight, etc. Walking is a good milestone. The average child demonstrates a desire to start walking by him/herself between eight and 18 months. That ten-month swing is enough to accommodate both premature and full-term babies within the norm. As long as the premature baby starts demonstrating an urge to walk by the 18th month – even if he/she doesn’t master it – chances are he/she is just fine in that regard.

The important thing to remember is that parents of premature babies should not compare their children to others. Milestones are the measuring stick, not other babies in the family or neighbourhood.

Permanent Developmental Disabilities

By monitoring milestones, parents and their doctors can identify any potential developmental disabilities that might be permanent. Unfortunately, there are those times when such disabilities do occur. Common examples include things such as cerebral palsy and permanent cognitive impairment.

Please note that permanent developmental disabilities are rare in premature babies born after 32 weeks. Between 23 and 27 weeks, they are more common. Should doctors suspect that the baby may exhibit a permanent disability later in life, tests may be ordered to confirm suspicions. But understand that it is also possible for a baby to appear completely normal in the weeks and months following birth only to develop some sort of physical or mental disability later on.

The vast majority of premature babies do not suffer any long-term developmental issues. Most simply catch-up as they grow older. In cases where physical or mental development is permanent, there are services parents can take advantage of to help provide normal lives for their children.

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