Caring for Your Premature Baby
While the average pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks, the unpredictable can happen and your baby may come earlier than expected. Premature births occur in about 11 to 13 percent of pregnancies in the United States.
A baby is considered premature if she’s born more than three weeks before her estimated due date. Many premature babies grow healthily with little to no complications. However, the earlier she is born, the more complications she might have.
Having a premature baby can lead to a lot of emotions and stress. Depending on how early the baby is born, she might have to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, for days, weeks, or even months. After carrying and delivering your newborn, leaving her in the hospital for even the shortest amount of time instead of bringing her home as planned can lead to feelings of anxiety, sadness, and guilt.
Causes of Premature Birth
Sometimes premature birth can occur if the mother’s lifestyle is detrimental to the pregnancy. Poor nutrition, drug or alcohol use, smoking, and poor prenatal care could lead to premature birth. However, other medical factors out of the mother’s control can also lead to premature birth. These causes might include:
- Chronic illness
- Fetal abnormalities
- History of pregnancy losses
- Maternal illness or infection during pregnancy
- Multiple fetuses
- Abnormality of the mother’s reproductive organs
What to Expect With a Premature Baby
The earlier a baby is born, the smaller he will be. Premature babies, or preemies, have very little fat on their bodies, which makes their skin more transparent as well as makes them more likely to be cold. Typically, premature babies are placed quickly in an incubator where the temperature can be adjusted so the baby stays warm.
Preemies often have soft, quiet cries and might have difficulty breathing. This is due to an underdeveloped respiratory system. Babies who need help breathing are closely monitored and given extra oxygen, and sometimes need special equipment like a ventilator or a CPAP machine.
Preemies can experience a variety of other problems, depending on how early they’re born. Some are short-term issues that can be treated, while others are more severe and long term.
Heart problems, most commonly hypertension or a defect called patent ductus arteriosus (PDA)
Brain problems, such as bleeding on the brain
Gastrointestinal problems, such as necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC)
Metabolism problems, such as hypoglycemia
Immune system problems
Dental problems, such as delayed tooth eruption
Vision problems, such as retinopathy of prematurity
Hearing problems, such as hearing loss
What to Expect When Your Preemie Comes Home
When you finally get to bring your baby home from the hospital, you might be a little nervous about taking care of him. Stay in contact with your baby’s doctor about any questions you may have. You might find that caring for a preemie isn’t much different than caring for a full-term baby, but here are some key tips for making sure your baby is healthy and happy at home.
Limit visits and trips. Since your preemie’s immune system is still developing, you’ll have to limit the number of visitors who come to see him because he’s at an increased risk of infection. Don’t let anyone who is sick near your baby and have any visitors wash their hands before holding him. Try to limit trips unless they’re to visit the doctor.
Put your baby to sleep on her back. Preemies tend to sleep a little more than full-term babies, but for shorter periods. Place her on her back to sleep to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Practice skin-to-skin contact. Research has shown that skin-to-skin contact promotes parent-baby bonding and can improve a preemie’s health. In the first weeks when it’s mostly just you and your baby, dress your baby in only a diaper and hold him to your chest so that his ear is against your heart.
Be ready for more frequent feedings. Preemies need to eat more than full-term babies, and feeding is exhausting for them. Both your and your baby’s sleep schedules will probably be unpredictable for the first few weeks.
Learn to swaddle. Your baby might not sleep very deeply, but a swaddle is still comforting for him. Have the nurses at the hospital teach you how to swaddle him and practice it often. This will help keep your baby warm and secure.
Learn CPR. Consider taking an infant CPR course so that you know what to do in an emergency. Ask your partner or anyone who will spend a lot of time with your baby to also take the course.
Familiarize yourself with any special equipment. Some preemies will still need breathing monitors or oxygen after they come home. Ask your baby’s doctor any questions you might have about the function and use of any equipment so that you’ll know more quickly if something is wrong and how to respond.
Get the help you need. Taking care of a preemie can be a handful. Let your partner or other loved ones support you when you need it. It could help to talk to other preemie parents, so keep in touch with the moms and dads you might’ve met while your newborn was in the NICU.
If you need childcare, ask your doctor about finding a childcare provider who knows how to care for a baby with medical needs or search the internet. Check with your insurance to see if it covers the cost of in-home care for your baby.
Moms Share Their Preemie Care Tips
“Our daughter was born five weeks early. We knew she would be a preemie, so we were super prepared with preemie diapers and clothes. Getting her to eat was an adventure. Her doctor said her stomach was the size of a cherry pit so we couldn’t feed her much at a time, but she ate probably every 30 minutes for about a week. If you can prepare at all, you should.” –Karen Hill
“It was a hundred times harder to breastfeed my preemie. My oldest was born at 33 weeks. He started out on a bottle to be able to more accurately keep track of his feedings and then just never latched from there. I tried to keep up with pumping and then feeding him a bottle, but it just became too much. It’s also emotionally harder. Talk to your friends and family.” –Jessie Weiss
“I had to watch for any signs of illness or infections, changes in bowel or eating, those types of things. For me, I was exhausted from worrying, running back and forth from home to hospital, and then when he was home doing regular household stuff and caring for my seven-year-old daughter. I finally learned that when they rest, you do too. The house stuff can wait or others can take care of it for you.” –Sandy Richards