What Is a Premature Baby?

Premature babies are infants who are born too soon. Doctors consider any baby born at least three weeks before their due date (less than 37 weeks) to be premature. About 1 in 10 of all babies born today arrives prematurely.

Some premature babies are born perfectly healthy. But many experience medical challenges soon after birth and require an extra level of care. The earlier a baby is born, the more complex any health challenges may be.

If you give birth before baby has fully developed, your newborn may need to spend the first few days or weeks of life in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). In the NICU, neonatal specialists use special equipment to help babies overcome health challenges. Ongoing medical advances continue to help more premature babies affected by a wide range of health problems that stem from premature birth.

How Does Prematurity Affect Babies?

Prematurity affects every baby differently. A premature baby may show one or more of these common signs of prematurity:

  • Low birth weight
  • Difficult maintaining normal body temperature
  • Feeding challenges, sucking or swallowing difficulties
  • Difficulty managing blood sugar

Common Health Issues Premature Babies Face

Common health issues that premature babies face include:

  • Breathing issues: Some premature babies stop breathing for brief or longer periods of time (called apnea). Others experience a breathing complication called respiratory distress syndrome (RDS), which stems from complications with the lungs’ air sacs.
  • Jaundice: This common condition occurs when babies have a high level of bilirubin, which is produced during normal breakdown of red blood cells. In some babies, the liver isn't mature enough to process the bilirubin. Babies will have a yellow tint to skin or eyes.
  • Infections: Because premature babies’ immune systems haven’t finished developing yet, they are more prone to getting infections. Infections can sometimes be serious if not treated right away.
  • Anemia: When babies are born prematurely, they may have low levels of red blood cells and require a blood transfusion.
  • Heart conditions: There are a number of complications that could affect a newborn’s heart. Often, premature babies have low blood pressure (called hypotension). Patent ductus arteriosus (PDA) is another heart problem, impacting arteries close to the heart, that affects some premature babies.

How Do Doctors Care for Premature Babies?

Some premature babies are born perfectly healthy and need little extra assistance from medical professionals. Other times, premature babies may need to spend days or weeks in a hospital NICU until they are healthy enough to head home.

A NICU is specifically designed to care for babies who need extra help in the first days and weeks of life outside the womb. In the NICU, a neonatal care team watches babies closely, providing a high level of care for any premature baby that should need special attention.

The way doctors care for a premature baby will depend on the specific circumstances and health challenges a baby faces. Treatment may include:

  • Medication
  • Breathing support, such as oxygen therapy or a nasal continuous positive airway pressure (NCPAP) machine
  • Nonsurgical procedures

At Baptist Health, our neonatal specialists have experience treating babies with a wide range of health conditions. We take excellent care of babies, should they be born with a routine or rare medical condition requiring extra assistance.

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