Prematurity occurs when a baby is born more than three weeks before he/she is due (or before 37 completed weeks of gestation). A mother may go into preterm labor for a variety of reasons, such as health conditions, pregnancy-related problems or other factors (like age of the mother). However, often the cause is unknown. Depending on how early the baby was born, there can be a number of complications and risks resulting from a premature birth. A baby born prematurely may have trouble breathing or maintaining a constant body temperature. Other symptoms may include anemia, internal bleeding, infection, low blood sugar, jaundice or intestinal inflammation. Prematurity can be life-threatening and is the number one cause of death in infants.
Getting early and good prenatal care may reduce the risk of a premature birth, but there is no surefire way to prevent it. Although premature labor cannot be stopped, the birth will be labeled “high-risk” and the baby will be admitted to a high-risk nursery for very close monitoring. An infant may be placed in an incubator or given a feeding tube and kept in the hospital for weeks or months until all of their organs have developed enough to keep them alive without medical support.
Prematurity can be a very scary and stressful time for the new mother and the rest of the family. They often have to cancel all of their daily activities in order to be in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) with their baby. All of the time spent and treatments performed in NICU can take a huge emotional – and financial- toll on the new parents. It is also an incredibly difficult time for the infant, as they must fight for his/her life every minute of every day. However, leaving the NICU does not mean that prematurity is finished. Prematurity can have long-term effects on the infant’s development and may cause future medical or behavioral problems. It can permanently alter the lives of both the baby and the baby’s family.
There are many organizations that provide the families of premature infants with assistance, information and resources. Support groups are also prevalent and can be helpful for families coping with the stress and grief of a premature birth.