My daughter was born at 25 weeks of pregnancy. Any baby born before the 37th week of pregnancy is determined to be premature. These babies are at great risk because of early birth including health problems due to body organs that have not yet fully developed. A baby born this early requires neonatal intensive care and not all hospitals are equipped with NICU. The sad statistic is that being born prematurely is the most common cause of neonatal death (death in the first 28 days of life) making up 30% of all neonatal deaths.
A premature birth occurs in 8% to 10% of all U.S. pregnancies and health problems of the mother such as high blood pressure can contribute to this occurrence. Multiple birth pregnancies where pregnant moms are expecting twins, triplets or other multiples have a higher rate of prematurity. Premature birth can occur when a pregnancy has been uneventful and normal up to that point so there may not be any indication or health problem preceding the premature labor. There are certain pregnant women who have been known to be at higher risk for premature labor including those who have had previous premature birth, those with multiple gestational pregnancies, and those who have uterine malformations. If a woman goes into preterm labor and is less than 34 weeks of pregnancy tocolytics, a drug can be given to help delay delivery for about 48 hours. This valuable additional time allows doctors to treat the pregnant woman with corticosteroid drugs in order to speed the maturation of fetal lungs and other organs. Speeding the maturation of the lungs and other organs gives the baby a better chance for avoiding the more serious complications of prematurity such as respiratory distress syndrome and brain hemorage. To protect the baby against infection, antibiotics may also be given if delivery is before 34 weeks of pregnancy.
The NICU has special equipment and special nursing staff trained to care for these very special tiny patients. Babies in the NICU are there so that there organs can finish maturing, may be there for treatment of infections or other conditions that threaten a premature infant such as anemia (low red blood cells), apnea (cessation of breathing for 20 seconds or more), low blood pressure, high heart rate, lethargy, brain bleeds or those who have not yet learned to suckle and those who need to gain weight in order to maintain body temperature.
Babies will remain in the NICU until any medical condition associated with prematurity has been treated and under control. Typically a premature baby goes home around the same time as the expected due date. My daughter was due on March 21, was born on December 4 and went home on March 11. She was born weighing 1 pound 11 ounces and went home weighing 4 pounds 6 ounces.
Any pregnant woman should be aware of the warning signs of premature labor and take appropriate steps to get medical attention immediately.
Warning Signs of Premature Labor Include:
- Contractions that are every ten minutes or more frequently within a one hour period of time such as 5 or more uterine contractions within an hour
- Watery discharge from the vagina
- Cramping that feels like menstrual cramps that are constant or that come and go
- Backache that is low and dull that is constant or that comes and goes
- Pressure in the pelvic region that feels as if the baby is pushing down
- Diarrhea that occurs with cramping or without cramping
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Change in vaginal discharge
It is important for any pregnant mom-to-be and dad-to-be as well as anyone living with a pregnant woman to be aware of these signs of premature labor as well as to be familiar with facts you should know about premature babies because being prepared is better than being unprepared.
Matthews, T.J., et al. Infant Mortality Statistics from the 2002 Period Linked Birth/Infant Death Data Set. National Vital Statistics Reports, volume 53, number 10, November 24, 2005.
American Pregnancy Association http://www.americanpregnancy.org/labornbirth/prematurelabor.html
March of Dimes “Who Will Deliver Early?” http://www.marchofdimes.com/21832_5758.asp