Premature babies, often called preemies, are more prone to facing medical complications than full-term babies. A preterm baby is one that has been born before 32 or 34 weeks of gestation, and if you’re the parent of a preemie, you might want to know more about the different conditions that your child might experience to be better prepared to deal with these problems and offer your little one the medical care it needs.
Jaundice: Jaundice is more likely to occur in premature babies because their livers aren’t fully developed and cannot properly filter bilirubin from the blood. Jaundice causes babies to develop yellowish skin and eyes, but is usually mild and harmless. If the bilirubin level becomes too high, however, it can cause brain damage. Preliminary blood tests can easily indicate whether bilirubin levels are abnormally high, and the baby can be treated with phototherapy or a blood transfusion.
Anemia: Premature babies are born too soon and can’t store enough iron, which usually happens during the final stages of pregnancy, and since iron is used to produce red blood cells, insufficient iron levels can result in anemia. Anemic babies develop more slowly than healthy babies, experience feeding problems, and might suffer from heart or breathing problems. They can be treated with dietary iron supplements, drugs that increase red blood cell production, or a blood transfusion.
Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS): Babies born before the 34th week of pregnancy might develop RDS, which occurs in babies lacking a protein called surfactant that is responsible for keeping the small air sacs in the lungs from collapsing. Babies with RDS can be given treatments with surfactant, enabling them to breathe more easily. In addition to surfactant treatment, preemies with RDS may receive a treatment called continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which delivers pressurized air to the baby's lungs. Preemies with severe RDS will temporarily need a respirator until their lungs mature.
Apnea: This condition is when a preemie stops breathing for 20 or more seconds and suffers from a slow heart rate. Premature babies are always monitored for apnea, and if a baby stops breathing, a nurse or doctor will help the baby start breathing again by patting it or touching the soles of its feet.
Intraventricular Hemorrhage (IVH): Preemies born before 32 weeks of gestation sometimes suffer from bleeding in the brain, which usually occurs during the first three days after birth and can be diagnosed with an ultrasound examination. In most cases, IVH is mild and resolves itself with no or few lasting problems. In severe cases, however, the ventricles in the brain expand rapidly, resulting in pressure in the brain that can lead to brain damage. To reduce the risk of brain damage, surgeons insert a tube into the brain to drain the fluid.
Patent Ductus Arteriosis (PDA): A common heart problem in premature babies, PDA occurs when the ductus arteriosus lets the blood bypass the lungs because the fetus gets its oxygen through the placenta. Normally, the ductus closes after birth to enable the blood to travel to the lungs; when the ductus doesn’t close properly, it can cause heart failure. Doctors use a specialized form of ultrasound (echocardiography) to diagnose PDA, and treat it either with a drug that closes the ductus or through surgery.
Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC): A potentially dangerous intestinal problem, NEC usually surfaces 2-3 weeks after birth and can lead to feeding difficulties, abdominal swelling and other complications. Diagnosed with X-rays and blood tests, NEC can be treated using antibiotics and intravenous feeding while the bowel heals. Surgery will sometimes be used to remove damaged sections of the intestine.
Retinopathy Of Prematurity (ROP): This condition can lead to vision loss due to an abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eye. ROP usually develops in babies born before 32 weeks of gestation, and can only be diagnosed by an eye doctor. Usually, ROP cases are mild and heal on their own, but in severe cases, abnormal vessels must be treated using a laser or with cryotherapy (freezing) to protect the retina and preserve vision.