In Australia, about eight per cent of babies are born prematurely every year. The average age for a full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks as pregnancy normally spans from 38 to 42 weeks. If a baby is born before 37 weeks gestation, they are considered premature.
The Stages of Prematurity
Most premature babies are born between 32 and 36 weeks gestation, and most grow to be healthy children.
The gestational age at which the baby is born before 37 weeks defines the degree of prematurity. The degree of prematurity is broken down into the following groups:
- Extremely premature- from 23-28 weeks
- Very premature- 28-32 weeks
- Moderately premature- 32-34 weeks
- Late preterm- 34-37 weeks
Characteristics of Premature Babies
Babies that are born before 37 weeks:
- May have low birth weight (less than 2.5kg).
- May have a different appearance from that of a full-term baby. This depends, however, on the baby’s gestational age at birth. If your baby was born as late preterm, they’d possibly look like a smaller version of a full-term baby. Babies born more prematurely are smaller, weigh much lesser and look fatigued. The head is larger than the rest of the body, the baby has less fat than average, the skin is translucent, and the eyes shut tightly.
- Will get cold even in normal room temperatures. Since premature babies have no protective fatty layer, they cannot keep warm. Hence, they are nursed immediately after birth in an incubator. The incubator has a special heating system that is adjusted to keep such babies warm.
- May have poorly developed respiratory systems. Preterm babies find it hard to breathe. You may notice this when you hear a preterm baby cry. They cry softly and are almost inaudible in some cases.
- May require neonatal intensive care and be transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) immediately after birth. This means they will be nursed with special equipment. These include ventilators, CPAP (continued positive airway pressure) machines, feeding tubes, and cardio-respiratory monitors.
- Are more vulnerable to germs and infections. Their immune system is quite underdeveloped and may not be able to fight against infections.
- Sleep more and differently than full-term babies.
You can be involved in the care of your baby by:
- Visiting and spending as much time with her as permitted.
- Initiate physical contact (touching, holding and rocking) her when the doctor says it’s safe to do so.
- Feeding her via feeding tubes, bottles or the breast, as recommended.
- Checking in with your baby’s pediatrician frequently.
This article is written to be informative and does not substitute seeking a professional consultation from a medical professional.
You can make an appointment with Dr Kenny on 07 3188 5000.