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Premature Baby: Hospital Care

What is prematurity?

Premature babies are usually born more than 5 to 8 weeks early (after less than 32 weeks of pregnancy). Premature babies may need to be cared for in the hospital until close to their due dates.

What is the cause?

The cause of premature birth is often not known. Sometimes a baby may need to be delivered early due to health problem for the mother or baby. It is common for twins or other multiple births to be born early.

What happens after the baby is born?

Because your baby is so small and premature, your baby will be cared for in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for a few days or several weeks. Many specialists will help care for your baby during her stay in the NICU.

Visit your baby as much as you can. Your presence helps the baby grow and get strong. Sometimes the baby is so sick at first that you may not be able to hold him until he is better. You can still hold the baby’s hand, touch, and talk to him. The older and more mature your baby is, the more you will be able to handle and care for him.

In the special care nursery, your baby will be in a special bed that keeps the baby warm by heating the air. All babies are attached to a heart and breathing monitor while they are in the NICU. These monitors sound an alarm if there is a big change in the baby's heart or breathing rate.

What problems do premature babies have?

There are many problems that a preterm baby faces during the first weeks. Most problems of prematurity improve as the baby grows.

  • Breathing problems. Babies may need oxygen and need a machine such as a ventilator or nasal CPAP help with their breathing. They may also need special medicines to help their lungs work better. Most children outgrow these lung problems during the first several months of life. Some children may continue to have problems with wheezing and infections, but usually get better as they get older.
  • Feeding. At first the baby may be too weak or have too much trouble breathing to nurse or feed from a bottle. Your baby will be given IV fluids and nutrition right after birth. It may take several weeks before the baby is ready for breast milk or premature infant formula feedings. Your breast milk is a very important food for your baby. It helps protect your baby against infection and it is also easily digested. Because your premature baby cannot yet nurse, you will need to pump your breasts to provide breast milk for your infant.
  • Infection. Premature babies cannot protect themselves against infections very well because their defenses are weak. Once infected, the baby can get sick very quickly. If the doctor suspects an infection, your baby will have blood tests and be treated with antibiotics.
  • Bleeding in the brain. Very premature infants are at risk for bleeding in the brain. Ultrasound scans of your baby's head will be done to check and follow-up for any sign of bleeding.
  • Eye problems. In some premature babies, abnormal blood vessels may start to grow inside the eye. This may be a minor problem, but it could also be very serious. All premature babies will have their eyes checked soon after birth, and regularly as they grow up.
  • Anemia. Every preterm baby has too few red blood cells during the first 2 months of life. Most babies who are sick and often need blood tests, or who weigh less than 2 and a half pounds at birth, will need a blood transfusion to keep the blood count normal.

What follow-up care does my child need?

If you need to have special equipment at home, the hospital will help you arrange for it. They will teach you everything you need to know about caring for your baby at home. Once home, your baby will need more frequent feedings.

Most very premature babies grow up to be normal, healthy children. However, low-birth-weight babies are at greater risk for developmental problems than babies that are not premature. Premature babies also may need special medical care during their first year of life.

  • Keep all appointments for checkups after your baby is home from the hospital. The pediatrician needs to make sure that your baby is gaining weight well.
  • Your baby should have her vision checked regularly after you go home from the hospital. As your child grows up, she may have eye muscle problems and may need glasses to correct this problem.
  • Have your baby’s hearing tested at least once during the first year to make sure that she does not have hearing problems.
  • Make sure that your baby gets childhood immunizations to protect her against infection.
  • Take an infant CPR course from the Red Cross before you bring your baby home.

Try not to be overprotective. You will see your baby quickly grow and get healthy and strong.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2014.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-07-25
Last reviewed: 2012-04-16
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©2014 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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