Pregnancy typically lasts about 40 weeks after the woman’s last menstrual period. However, there are many situations in which labor starts a little or even much earlier. About 12% of babies are born prematurely, or before the 37th week. Approximately one third of these are born before the 33rd week. Preterm deliveries are 60% more likely in twin pregnancies; as fertility treatments become more common, resulting in more multiple pregnancies, more premature babies are born.
The final few weeks of pregnancy are important for babies to be able to live outside the womb. They accumulate body fat that will help their bodies stay warm, and will increase their weight by about a half pound per week. Their lungs undergo a final transformation in order to be filled with air instead of placental fluids. Their eye pupils develop the ability to dilate and contract in response to light.
Premature babies have health risks because their organs are not completely developed at birth. The good news is that physicians have many tools to be prepared for a premature delivery and for nurturing a baby born too early.
Premature delivery can be delayed by anti-contraction medications, allowing the baby an additional crucial few days or weeks in the womb. When delivery is imminent (within 24-28 hours), an injection of glucocorticoid (betamethasone or dexamethasone) to the mother can hasten the final step of lung development.
Once born, premature babies generally stay in a neonatal intensive care unit until they are fully able to thrive at home. They are provided stable body warmth, additional oxygen in their breathing air, and nutrients to help them continue to add body weight. Some preemies require surgery to close the prenatal opening in the heart that allows blood to bypass the fetal lungs while still in the womb, or to repair a hernia.
Parents of preterm babies can feel helpless while their baby remains in the hospital. However, you can play a vital role in your baby’s life during this time. Many babies can be fed breast milk through a tube if they are not ready to breast-feed. The hospital often can provide you with a high-quality breast pump so that you can produce the colostrum, or “first milk”, that is extremely valuable for your baby and then continue to provide this healthy nourishment while your baby is nurtured in the hospital.
With precautions to protect your baby from germs, you can touch and eventually hold your baby, and speak to your baby. Remember that your baby has heard your voice while inside you; retaining sensory connections with you after birth is very beneficial to your newborn (and to you!). As your baby grows and gains strength, you can work towards breastfeeding.
Be sure to take care of yourself when you have a premature baby. Your success in being strong, healthy, and rested will directly bring success for your baby and your entire family.
Dr. Kathy D obtained her PhD in Physiology and did biomedical research for over a decade, specializing in reproductive endocrinology. She is a devoted "earth girl" - non-meat eater, passionate recycler, persistent home remodeler/do-it-yourselfer, always with a focus on environmentally friendly options.Web | More Posts (19)