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What to Expect When You Have a Premature Birth

The months and weeks leading to the birth of your baby are filled with anticipation and planning, but most expecting parents rarely consider how those plans may need to change if their baby is born prematurely. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly one out of every 10 babies in the United States is born prematurely.

A preterm birth, which is defined as any baby born before 37 weeks, can create challenges for a newborn that range in severity and include breathing problems, feeding difficulties, cerebral palsy, developmental delays and vision and hearing problems. They also take a physical and emotional toll on parents and family members who must deal with the added complexity of supporting their newborn's unique physical and medical needs.

We spoke with Kathryn A. Ziegler, DO, a physician specializing in neonatology at Jefferson Abington Hospital, about what parents should expect if their child is born prematurely.

Care for Your Premature Baby Starts Immediately

"Care for your preterm baby starts immediately in the delivery room," said Dr. Ziegler. "We assess the baby as soon as they're born, which includes how well they're breathing and getting oxygen into their blood from their lungs."

If the assessment indicates that the baby needs extra help with their breathing, they may need to be put on a ventilator or use a CPAP machine temporarily. They may also need a pulmonary surfactant, which is a medicine that helps the lungs develop faster. When premature babies who need breathing support move to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), they typically stay on the ventilator until they start to show signs that they are ready to breathe on their own.

"At around 31 to 32 weeks of gestation, the baby's lungs are mature enough that we can start decreasing their breathing support," said Dr. Ziegler. "At about 34 weeks of gestation, the majority of premature babies are breathing on their own."

In addition to challenges with breathing, premature babies can also experience conditions and symptoms that include:

  • Developmental delays: Caused by the increased risk of bleeding in their brain, this risk is greatly reduced in children born after 32 weeks.
  • Difficulty feeding: Because their digestive systems are not fully developed, premature babies may need to receive nutrients through a tube that reaches their stomach via the mouth or nose.
  • Prolonged jaundice: Recognized by a yellowing of the skin, jaundice occurs because a premature baby's gastrointestinal system may not yet be fully developed.

"The NICU at Jefferson Health - Abington is staffed 24/7, and we have therapeutic approaches to help handle the most complex issues a premature baby will face," said Dr. Ziegler. "This includes techniques like therapeutic hypothermia to reduce developmental delays when there has been a lack of oxygen to the brain, inhaled nitric oxide to help with breathing issues, and surgery to correct retinal detachment and preserve a newborn's eyesight."

Supporting the Family During a Challenging Time

The staff at Jefferson Abington Hospital prioritizes treating the whole family during this time. This includes nursing staff members available for questions and calls whenever needed, and a NICVIEW camera that allows parents to check in on their baby at any time of the day or night. These approaches help to alleviate some of the fear and worry when parents are not at the hospital or are at home resting.

The care that began in the delivery room continues long after a premature baby goes home.

"We have the privilege of following up on our babies in the outpatient sector as well. So even after they go home, we continue the journey with them and ensure they're doing well medically and developmentally," said Dr. Ziegler. "If your baby is born premature, rest assured they can and will go on to lead productive and successful lives because of the care they get with us."

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