Premature babies are babies born before they complete at least 37 weeks of gestation. While as parents you are more than happy to welcome them home, their little bodies are not technically ready to be out of the mommy’s womb and be on the outside world yet. Their organs are not fully developed, they are not as heavy as they should be and they are not developmentally at par with their peers in the initial months.
Owing to their physical immaturity, many at times, premature babies have health problems – short-term ones and/or long-term ones. While not all premature babies have health problems, the sooner the baby is born, more are the problems.
The following are some of the most commonly seen health problems in premature babies:
Problems related to lungs:
Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS): Premature babies usually have breathing problems because their lungs are not fully developed. Specifically, their lungs do not have pulmonary surfactant, which helps lungs to fill air and expand. Carefully monitored treatment is required for babies with RDS. This may include oxygen treatment, ventilation, and introducing extra surfactant directly to the child’s airway
Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia (BPD): This is a chronic lung disease and is sometimes seen as an aftermath of the treatment given to RDS. Babies with BPD have damaged airways and need to be given oxygen treatment for a prolonged period, often running into months
Problems related to heart:
Apnea: Babies with Apnea stops breathing for more 15-20 seconds at a time, before regaining the breath again. This usually happens in sleep. The condition, although scary, will go away on its own as the baby grows. However, the baby is treated in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) if the baby also has lungs problems leading to breathing challenges
Bradycardia: Bradycardia refers to sudden decline in the heart rate (decrease of 30 bpm from baseline). This is often the cause of Apnea. Positive pressure ventilation is a means to treat this condition
Problems related to eyes:
Retinopathy of Prematurity: A premature baby’s retina is not fully developed. This might result in abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eye in minor cases and total retinal detachment in severe cases. Fortunately, treatments, including laser therapy and antibody injections, can help restore the baby’s vision. For more on this, refer to Premature Baby And Eye Problems
Problems related to liver:
Jaundice: Jaundice is common in healthy newborn babies. It is all the more common among premature kids. Jaundice is caused due to
immaturity of baby’s liver which results in sub-optimal break down of a yellow substance called bilirubin. The major symptom (apart from a high bilirubin count) is yellowish skin. Photo therapy is known to be effective to treat neonatal jaundice. Read more about it here.
Problems related to brain:
Social and behavioral issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), increased anxiety and so on. Read more about hyperactivity and how to handle it here
Neurological problems including cerebral palsy. Read more about it here
Developmental problems such as autism. Read more about how to cope with autism here
Other health problems:
Partial or full hearing loss is a commonly seen birth problem among preemies. Hearing aids or implants might be necessary for these babies
Delay in teething
Anemia: In both babies and adults, our bodies continuously breakdown old red blood cells (RBC) and produce new ones. In a premature baby, the RBC breakdown might be quicker and RBC production might be slower, leading to a deficit, and consequently Anemia. These babies might require iron supplements in minor cases and blood transfusion in severe cases
Since the premature babies have a heightened risk of all the above health problems, they are given special attention and care from the time of birth. If you have a premature baby, understand that his infant needs might be quite different from other babies of his age. The following write-ups might be of help: