What Is Prematurity?
Prematurity is when your baby is less than 37 weeks old at the time of birth. A term baby is born at 38 to 42 weeks.
A premature baby is usually not fully developed, meaning some vital organs might not be functioning at optimal levels. Some may not be ready to operate at all, which is why these babies are placed in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and cared for by specialists.
It is perfectly normal to be concerned about this delicate situation; you are not alone. Globally, 12.9 million babies—10 percent of the world birth population—are born prematurely each year. In the United States, preterm births have risen 36 percent in the past 25 years. Africa has the highest rate at 11.9 percent, followed by North America with 10.6 percent, and then Asia with 9.1%. The premature birth rates for Latin America and the Caribbean are at 8.1 percent, Australia and New Zealand are at 6.4 percent, and Europe is at 6.2 percent.1
What Can I Expect?
As with full-term births, one thing is certain—you can expect anything. This is a new experience, one that all the reading and research in the world cannot fully prepare you for.
As the parents of a premature baby, you will be faced with greater potential for complications than if your baby had been born full-term. Your baby will reside in the NICU if the doctor deems it necessary to monitor the health of your child. He or she will be sleeping most of the time, because all of the baby’s energy will be directed toward bringing the primary functions up to normal and ridding the body of harmful microorganisms.
You will spend a lot of time with your baby in the NICU. The journey will be long and hard, but it will give your baby the best chances for clinical care and professional support by specialists.
In some cases, your baby may be sick and require around-the-clock care, and may possibly experience one or more of the following complications:
- Breathing problems such as apnea, which is a temporary cessation of breathing
- Infection problems of the lungs such as pneumonia
- Physiological defects such as heart valve abnormalities
Your child's organs, like the organs of other premature babies, may not have fully developed; some might not yet even function. In short, you can expect things to be harder than if your baby had been born full-term; however, you can also expect that in the NICU, everything is being done to ensure your baby's growth. In the NICU, you’ll have the aid and care of a dedicated, highly trained staff, as well as the most technologically advanced equipment.
Asking for Help from Family and Friends
Just as the NICU staff is working hard toward the goal of getting your baby strong enough to go home, you could ask family and friends for assistance should the need arise. And it probably will. This is a very emotional, intense period in your life. You may be a new parent, or a veteran parent who has not had a premature baby—but no matter the circumstance, it's never easy.
Family and friends will understand this and want to support you every step of the way. Whether you ask someone to be at the hospital when you can’t, or you simply need a hug of support or a shoulder to cry on, your reliance on family and friends is essential to the process.