Premature Birth: Causes, Risks, and Consequences

Around 10% of all babies are born prematurely - that is, before 37 weeks. The vast majority of them grow up to be healthy and happy kids, but some develop serious health issues. What can you expect after a premature birth?

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Around 10% of all babies are born prematurely – that is, before 37 weeks. The vast majority of them grow up to be healthy and happy kids, but some develop serious health issues. What can you expect after a premature birth?

This must be every pregnant woman’s worst fear: that her body will fail her and she will give birth to a premature baby (preemie, as they are often called) with serious health issues. The reality is not so scary: the majory of premature births are late term (just a few weeks early), and 98% of these babies survive. And with the advances of modern medicine, even babies born at 25 weeks and weighing less than one kilogram, 80-90% survive. However, it is true that preemies have a higer risk of developing health issues in the future. These include autism, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, asthma, heart issues, eyesight problems, and hearing loss.

Risk factors

A lot of women who give birth prematurily have no obvious risk factors are causes at all. However, some conditions increase the risk (more info here) :

  • Short cervix
  • Previous premature births
  • Miscarriages or multiple abortions
  • Being obese or underweight
  • Smoking, drinking, and taking drugs while pregnant
  • IVF conception
  • Pregnancy with twins or triplets
  • Stressful event (divorce, death in the family, etc.)

Interestingly, research shows that microflora imbalances in the uterus can cause premature birth – in this case, antibiotics could reduce the risk (see this study).

What will happen after birth

If you give birth to a preemie, the most important thing is not to panic: your baby will be ok, and chances of something really bad happening are low. However, the baby will have to stay in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) for weeks or even months. In many cases, preemies have trouble breathing, so they get hooked up to a ventilator. Feeding often has to occur intravenously at first; once the baby is strong enough to receive breast milk, a special tube will be passed through his or her nose into the stomach.

A premature baby can have digestion problems or jaundice (yellow color of the skin), caused by the excess of bilirubin in their blood – to treat jaundice, preemies are placed under special lights. Their body temperature can be very low, since they are born without the necessary fat, so they have to be kept in a special plastic incubator that is always warm inside. Preemies need to be protected against all infections, since their immune systems are very low, and sometimes they are given blood transfusions to treat anemia (low red blood cell count).

Taking the baby home

Eventually the moment will come to take your preemie home. It is normal to feel anxious when it happens, but you just need to follow a few simple rules (you’ll find more here):

  • Protect your baby from infections – wash your hands carefully and don’t invite ill people to the house;
  • Make sure to learn all about your baby’s condition and possible side effects;
  • Administer all necessary medications on schedule;
  • Don’t feel embarrassed to call the doctor and ask – and do all that the doctor says.

Having a premature birth can be a traumatic experience for parents, and unfortunately it often leaves fears that something can happen in the future. If you are suffering and in need of help, you can contact one of the many preemie support networks. Remember: many women go through this, and you are not alone.

Premature birth support centers

References:

Premature Babies – MedlinePlus.gov

Long-term health effects of premature birth – Marchofdimes.org

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