Amid the excitement of a pregnancy, few parents-to-be imagine they will find themselves caring for premature baby. In the UK, 7%-8% of births are preterm, while the figure is slightly higher in the US – between 11% and 13%.
Almost two thirds of multiple deliveries – twins, triplets or more – are preterm, but in all around four fifths of premature births are not anticipated. It therefore makes sense to know what to expect if your baby ends up being delivered early.
A premature baby is a baby born more than three weeks before their estimated due date – so before the 37th week of pregnancy. Obviously, there will be different challenges and health issues to cope with depending on how early your baby is born, but some basic information will help you be better prepared.
A premature baby will usually weigh 5lb (2.26kg) or less. For comparison, most babies born from 37 weeks onwards weigh anything between 5lb 8oz (2.2kg) and 8lb 13oz (3.5kg). According to the World Health Organisation, the average is 7lb 6oz (2.95kg) for male babies and 7lb 2oz (2.83kg) for females.
Current medical science means most babies born after 28 weeks and weighing more than 2lb 3oz (1kg) have an almost 100% chance of survival. Of those born after 30 weeks, eight in ten have minimal long-term health or development problems.
Babies born before 28 weeks tend to have more serious and complicated problems and will need intensive care and treatment.
The earlier a baby is born, the smaller he will be and the larger his head will look in relation to his body. His skin will be thin and transparent as he’ll have little body fat. You may even be able to see the blood vessels beneath it. He may have fine hair on his back and shoulders, called lanugo.
Your premature baby’s features will probably look sharper than those of most full-term babies. He’s also unlikely to be covered in the white, cheesy vernix most newborns have as this isn’t produced until late pregnancy.
The lack of protective fat means premature babies soon get cold at normal room temperatures, which is why after birth they need to be placed in an incubator or under a special heating device.
A premature baby’s respiratory system is still immature, so you’ll probably notice she has some trouble breathing. She will likely cry very softly, if at all.
Breathing difficulties can cause problems in babies who are more than two months premature. There may not be enough oxygen reaching the vital organs, which are still developing. In these cases, your baby will be kept under close observation and may need additional oxygen, a ventilator or other special care.
Coping with stress
After going through pregnancy and looking forward to meeting your baby, seeing him whisked away to the special care unit is incredibly tough. Even though you know it’s the best place for him, your body is crying out to hold him or feed him. You want to care for him and have him with you.
Ask to see your baby as soon as possible after delivery. Spend as much time with him in the special care unit as both his condition and yours allow. Even if you can’t hold him yet, you can talk to him and may be able to touch him.
If you were hoping to breastfeed, you might feel especially bereft. Ask if you can express milk to be given to your baby through his feeding tube or in a bottle until you are able to feed him directly. The nurses will be able to help you.
You should be prepared for the likelihood that you’ll be ready to go home before your baby. Leaving him in hospital will be difficult but remember he’s in the best place to get the care he needs at this stage. You’ll be able to visit and spend as much time with him as you like, and it’s a good idea to read up on what to expect once he’s home with you.
When your baby can breathe on his own and maintain his body temperature, and when he can feed from the breast or bottle and is gaining weight, you’ll be able to take him home and begin to enjoy being a family.