Premature Babies Frequently Asked Questions


In the United States, about 12 percent of babies are born prematurely. Having a baby is supposed to be a joyous occasion, but a premature birth can change all of that. At a time when you are supposed to be enjoying your healthy bundle of joy, you may be filled with worry and fear about your underweight, premature infant. Learning about premature babies and what to expect after your baby is born can help ease some of that worry.

What is a premature baby?

A premature baby is a baby that is born too soon. Pregnancy typically lasts about 40 weeks. Premature birth is when a baby is born more than 3 weeks early. In this case, a woman is pregnant for less than 37 weeks.

Three types of premature birth:

  • Late Preterm: born between 34-37 weeks of pregnancy

  • Very Preterm: born at less than 32 weeks of pregnancy

  • Extremely Preterm: born at less than 28 weeks of pregnancy

Why are babies born premature?

There is not a specific cause for premature birth. However, there are risk factors that increase your chance of having a premature birth.

  • Pregnancy with more than one baby, like twins or triplets

  • Previous premature birth

  • Smoking cigarettes

  • Drinking alcohol

  • Use of illicit drugs

  • Uterus, cervix, or placenta problems

  • Mothers with chronic health problems, including high blood pressure and diabetes

  • Some infections that occur during pregnancy

What do premature babies look like?

Premature babies have not had the chance to fully develop, so they are smaller than a full-term infant. A layer of fine hair will cover their body, and their skin will be thinner.

How much do premature babies weigh?

Premature babies differ in weight depending on how early they are born. Full-term babies typically weigh around 7.7 pounds. Late preterm babies weigh between 4.7 and 6.3 pounds. Very preterm babies can weigh between 1.7 and 3.75 pounds. Extremely preterm babies can weigh less than 1.5 pounds. Birth weights may vary depending on the baby and how early the baby is born.

What short term health risks do premature babies face?

  • Breathing Problems: Many premature babies experience breathing problems due to their underdeveloped respiratory system. Premature babies can develop bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), or chronic lung disease. BPD occurs in babies with underdeveloped lungs.

  • Apnea: Apnea is most common in premature babies born at 30 weeks or less. Apnea is when a baby takes a breath less often than once every 20 seconds.

  • Anemia: Anemia is when a baby has a low number of red blood cells. Premature babies are at risk of developing anemia because their bodies don’t make very many red blood cells.

  • Heart Problems: Premature babies can experience heart complications such as low blood pressure and patent ductus arteriosus (PDA). PDA is when the ductus arteriosus, a blood vessel normally found in fetal development, does not close properly after birth, causing too much blood flow to the lung and left side of the heart.

  • Jaundice: While jaundice is common in full-term babies, it is even more common in preterm babies. The blood cells for premature babies break down more than usual causing the baby’s skin and eyes to have a yellow discoloration, which is treatable.

  • Underdeveloped Immune System: When babies are born premature, their immune system does not have time to fully develop. Premature babies are at greater risk for infections until their immune system matures.

What long term health risks can premature babies potentially face?

  • Learning Problems: Learning problems may go unnoticed until the child is in school.

  • Cerebral Palsy: Cerebral palsy affects movement and muscle tone. This is caused by brain injury to the baby during pregnancy or early in the baby’s life.

  • Hearing and Vision Problems: Premature babies are at risk for hearing loss and vision impairment. Babies born before 30 weeks are at risk for developing retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). This disease may cause vision impairment or blindness in the most severe cases, which are rare.

  • Respiratory Problems: Children that were born prematurely are more likely to develop respiratory problems, such as asthma, croup and bronchitis.

How can preterm birth be prevented?

Since the causes of preterm birth are not fully understood, it is difficult to prevent. Reducing risk factors for premature birth (listed above), such as not smoking, consuming alcohol, or using illicit drugs will decrease your risk for having a premature baby. Talk to your health care provider about warning signs for preterm labor.

No parent plans for a premature birth. Having a premature baby can be a scary time. Fortunately, UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s offers the only Advanced Level II Regional Neonatology Center (NICU), the highest level neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in the area. St. Luke’s has neonatologists, neonatal nurse practitioners and physician assistants on staff, in hospital 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Learn more about why St. Luke’s is the best and most experienced NICU in the Cedar Rapids region today.

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