Premature Babies

Extra tiny bundles of joy

Although babies can come at any time during the pregnancy and due dates are often just guidelines, a premature baby can be both a surprise and a concern for many new parents. Normal gestation period for a human baby is 40 weeks, but babies are considered viable from 24 weeks on. Any child that is born before 37 weeks is considered premature.

What Causes Premature Births?

There is a variety of reasons that your baby may be born prematurely. These include high blood pressure, infection, trauma or chronic illness in the mother, or deformity or infection in the child. Multiples (twins, triplets, etc.) also tend to be premature. Of course, sometimes a premature birth just happens and the cause remains completely unknown.

What to Expect If Your Baby Is Premature

Premature babies really are tiny — they can weigh anywhere from less than 1 pound to around 5 pounds — and are generally considered at-risk for a variety of problems. Even a healthy baby who is premature will probably have to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) until he or she reaches a high enough weight to go home.

Development of preterm infants can be fast or slow, depending on how premature the baby is. Although babies' actual ages are counted from the day that they're born, premature babies are assigned a second age measured by the level of development they have reached. This is known as their adjusted age.

Premature babies commonly have respiratory problems due to their underdeveloped lungs, but they can also have immature gastrointestinal tracts and kidneys, interfering with other bodily functions. As well, they may need to be protected more carefully, since they are often rather fragile as a result of being underdeveloped. Sometimes, health problems can continue well after the baby has caught up with his or her peers, but many preemies end up developmentally normal and healthy.

How to Care for Your Preemie

Caring for a premature infant can be scarier than taking care of a regular baby because a preemie is so tiny. You may feel overwhelmed trying to fit this small stranger into your life or prepare for his or her homecoming. You will need to purchase preemie diapers and preemie baby clothing to properly outfit your child, since he or she likely will not fit into newborn sizes. Preemie clothes can be purchased online or at specialty stores. Sometimes, even department stores will carry these sizes, which should help you easily purchase the items you need.

Even after your baby comes home, he or she may require an apnea monitor or medication. Your doctor or a nurse should review the use of any equipment or medications with you before you take your baby home. You will also need to pay extra attention to your baby's nutritional needs and sleep. Baby sleep problems can be especially detrimental to a preemie's development and may be particularly hard on already stressed-out parents.

The most important thing you can do for your child is to treat him or her just as you would a regular baby, only more carefully. Hold, cuddle and bond with your preemie as you would if she or he was full-term. Don't let the fragile state scare you — you can still touch and talk to your baby, even when he or she is in the NICU.

Premature infants are often medically fragile, but the good news is they grow into happy, healthy babies, just like their peers. Enjoy your new child and do your research to make the transition and shock easier for your family.

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