Giving birth to a premature baby is a life-changing experience at so many levels. Between the constant worrying in the early stages to having to learn how to care for a preterm baby, parents go through a lot as they learn to navigate the waters of preterm birth. Our goal is to help make that navigation a little bit easier by providing parents with as much information as we possibly can.
In light of that, we have assembled a list of the most important premature baby facts you need to know heading into a preterm scenario. Obviously, we cannot cover every possible contingency due to the fact that each case is different. Don't be afraid to ask your midwife and medical team as many questions as you need to in order to understand what's happening with you and your baby.
Medical science defines a premature birth as any birth that takes place prior to the 37th week of pregnancy. Bear in mind that due dates are just estimates that are not necessarily scientifically accurate. That's why the three-week window exists between the 37th and 40th weeks of normal gestation.
There continues to be much debate over the causes of premature birth. Unfortunately, medical science has not been able to say definitively. There are some things we believe might contribute to preterm birth including infection, trauma, underlying medical conditions, and even genetics.
Despite the fact that medical science has not determined exactly what causes premature birth, there are some known factors that increase the chances of premature birth significantly. For example, 25% of all premature births are due to either mother or baby suffering from a life-threatening medical condition. Other known factors include premature breaking of the waters, placental abruption, and pre-eclampsia.
The chances of giving birth prematurely go up for mothers caring multiple babies in the womb. Statistics indicate that the average twin pregnancy lasts 36 weeks while triplets tend to be born at 32 weeks. The more babies a mother is carrying, the more likely she is to experience preterm birth.
Giving birth to a premature baby is challenging for both mother and child. There are some challenges associated with preterm labour that could represent medical emergencies in some cases. If a healthcare team determines the risks are too high to undergo normal birth, a caesarean procedure may be ordered.
A moderate to late preterm birth is one that occurs between 32 and 37 weeks. Very preterm births occur between weeks 28 and 32 while extremely preterm births occur before week 28.
Babies born at 30 weeks or later enjoy survival rates of about 80%. Babies closer to the 30-week mark are likely to experience some complications during the first few days and weeks of birth.
Birth at 32 weeks is also likely to be subject to at least some complications. However, the extra two weeks affords the baby an opportunity to gain more weight.
As a baby reaches the 34-week mark, he or she has gained significant weight and very good lung development. Some short-term complications are still possible.
Survival rates among premature babies continue to grow in the UK. For example, survival rates among very premature babies rose from 53% in 2006 to 80% in 2011. Generally accepted survival rates are as follows:
Babies born later in the premature spectrum are less likely to develop long-term problems as a result. Most will simply catch up as they grew. However, there is always a risk of complications the earlier baby is born. Developmental disabilities, stunted growth, and other chronic problems are always a possibility.
Early-stage growth and development for premature babies are different for each case. Some babies grow very rapidly while others progress more slowly. Healthcare teams put a greater emphasis on weight gain and the ability to thrive as a means of measuring development. Babies born after week 24 usually catch up over time.
Healthcare teams prefer premature babies feed on mother's milk as much as possible, as this contains the nutrients and growth factors babies need for proper development. Mother's milk may be provided via breastfeeding or expression. Where mother's milk is not available, donor milk or infant formula is used instead.
Healthcare teams prefer to use hospital-provided clothing for premature babies whenever possible. This is because their own clothing provides easier access for medical treatments. Upon leaving the hospital, parents can purchase clothing online or contact a charity to inquire about donations.
Premature birth is obviously not the ideal situation for parents or their children. However, it is no longer as dangerous and risky as it used to be. We've come a long way in understanding what it takes to keep premature babies alive, growing, and developing well enough to allow them to go on to live productive lives.
We encourage you to learn as much as you can about premature births and postnatal care if you are planning to become pregnant in the future. The more you know, the better prepared you will be should you find yourself in a preterm situation.