Babies born prematurely are at higher risk for developing certain kinds of health issues than their full-term counterparts. This is because their bodies have not had time to fully develop in the womb prior to birth. Parents of such babies can take comfort in the fact that being a premature infant does not necessarily mean a child will spend his or her entire life dealing with serious medical problems. Medical science can do a lot of things today that were not possible in the past.
Parents whose babies come early often find themselves asking, “what can we do?” The best thing they can do is to learn as much as possible about the health issues related to early birth. Some of these problems are minor; others are more serious. Parents can only help themselves and their families by gaining as much knowledge as possible and using that knowledge to provide the best possible care to their children.
Nearly every premature infant is at risk of having breathing trouble. The lungs are one organ that requires the entire 40 weeks of gestation to fully develop, so doctors are always concerned when babies are born early. In cases where labour begins prior to the 37th week but no earlier than the 34th, doctors may try to stop contractions long enough to administer steroid injections that will encourage the lungs to complete their development.
There are a number of breathing issues common among premature babies. The first of them is respiratory distress syndrome (RDS). This syndrome is a serious concern due to the fact that the baby’s lungs are incapable of absorbing a sufficient level of oxygen. Babies born with RDS may need to be hooked up to an artificial breathing machine until the lungs more fully develop.
Chronic lung disease (CLD) is a less serious concern but one that still has to be treated and monitored. It occurs when lung tissue is damaged to the extent that the lungs fill with fluid. Babies born with CLD are treated with supplemental oxygen; parents may be required to continue oxygen treatments at home.
One final concern is apnoea related to premature birth. Apnoea can be treated with certain kinds of medications when necessary. If the problem is not severe, parents may be simply offered suggestions for restoring the baby’s breathing to normal when an episode occurs. Most babies born with apnoea eventually outgrow it.
While the lungs and brain are of greatest concern for the premature infant, there are some cases in which a baby is born with heart problems. Among the most common is a condition known as patent ductus arteriosus (PDA). This condition is the result of a blood vessel remaining open when it should have otherwise closed at birth. This causes an excess amount of blood to flow between the heart and lungs.
In most cases, PDA can be effectively treated with medication. In severe cases where medication proves ineffective, surgery may be necessary to close the vessel.
The biggest concern for the premature baby’s brain is one of bleeding. This is due to the fact that the blood vessels in the brain are so small and fragile at birth. Babies who suffer from bleeding usually begin showing signs within the first few days of life. The longer a baby goes without showing signs of bleeding on the brain, the less likely it is to be a problem.
If doctors are concerned about the risk of bleeding after baby goes home, parents will be instructed to monitor for signs of such bleeding. Follow-up examinations by a neonatal specialist will also be recommended. Like PDA, premature babies outgrow the risk of bleeding on the brain as their bodies more fully develop.
There is some risk to the eyes when babies are born preterm. Retinopathy is probably the most common eye issue related to preterm birth. Retinopathy is a condition in which scar tissue forms on the retina as a result of bleeding within the first few days after birth. The good news is that most children diagnosed with retinopathy will not need any treatment. The body will heal itself naturally.
Some preterm children with retinopathy do require laser treatment or surgery. Others may suffer permanent loss of vision as a result of the condition. But by and large, retinopathy does not pose any long-term risks to the average premature infant.
A condition known as necrotising enterocolitis (NEC) is one that some premature babies have to deal with. It is a very serious condition, but one that can be very effectively treated if diagnosed early enough. When NEC is present, some of the tissue within the intestines has died off. The dead tissue can spread if the condition is not treated.
The first course of action is a nutritional drip combined with antibiotics. This treatment allows the intestines to rest so they can repair themselves. If the treatment proves unsuccessful, surgery may be required to remove the damaged part of the intestine.
As the parent of a premature infant, you are the best advocate your child can have. You absolutely should be involved in every aspect of your child’s health, from the moment he or she is born. Rest assured that healthcare teams appreciate parental involvement even though it may sometimes seem as though they don’t.
The best thing you can do as a parent is to make sure you stay fully informed. During the first few hours and days following the birth of your child, ask every question that enters your mind. There is no such thing as a question that should not be asked. Furthermore, be persistent. If hospital staff do not seem to be forthcoming with their answers, keep asking until you get the answers you need.
Supplement any information you learn at the hospital with your own research. You can dig around online, visit your local library, and so on. Plan to reach out to local support groups as well. They tend to be a wealth of information on premature babies and the health issues they face.
Lastly, never be afraid to fight for the best interests of your child. Again, you are his or her best advocate. Long after you and baby leave the hospital, there will be health concerns to deal with. You will need to stay on top of things in order to compensate for the limits of the healthcare system.
The premature infant is obviously at risk of developing certain kinds of health issues. The earlier a child is born, the greater the risk of long-term issues affecting everything from the lungs to the brain to the heart. As a parent, your first responsibility is to the health and well-being of your baby.
Do not be afraid to ask questions. Don’t hesitate to challenge doctors and nurses if you do not have confidence that the care they provide is in the best interests of your child. Research every potential health issue and treatment option so that you are armed with sufficient knowledge when it’s time to make decisions.