A baby born before 37 weeks of pregnancy is considered premature or born too early. The number of premature births in the U.S. is rising. Twins and other multiples are more likely to be premature than single birth babies.
Other terms often used for prematurity are preterm and preemie. Many premature babies weigh less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces. They may be referred to as low birth weight. Babies born before 34 weeks of pregnancy are often called early preterm.
Babies born between 34 and 37 weeks of pregnancy are often called late preterm or near-term infants.
Premature babies are cared for by a neonatologist. This is a doctor with special training to care for newborns. Other specialists may also care for babies, depending on their health problems.
Premature babies are born before their bodies and organ systems have completely matured. These babies may be small. They may weigh less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces. They may need help breathing, eating, fighting infection, and staying warm. Very premature babies, those born before 28 weeks, are at the greatest risk for problems. Their organs and body systems may not be ready for life outside the mother’s womb. And they may be too immature to function well.
Some of the problems premature babies may have include:
- Keeping their body temperature steady or staying warm
- Breathing problems, including serious short- and long-term problems
- Blood problems. These include low red blood cell counts (anemia), yellow-color to the skin from breaking down old red blood cells (jaundice), or low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia).
- Kidney problems
- Digestive problems, including difficulty feeding and poor digestion
- Nervous system problems, including bleeding in the brain or seizures
Premature babies can have long-term health problems as well. Generally, the more premature the baby, the more serious and long-lasting are the health problems.
More babies are surviving even though they are born early and are very small. It is best to prevent preterm labor if possible.
It's important to get good prenatal care while you are pregnant. Your healthcare provider can help find problems and suggest lifestyle changes to lower the risk for preterm labor and birth. Some ways to help prevent prematurity include:
- Stopping smoking if you smoke. You should stop smoking before you are pregnant.
- Finding out if you are at risk for preterm labor
- Learning the symptoms of preterm labor
- Getting treated for preterm labor
Your healthcare provider may give you the hormone progesterone if you are at high risk for preterm birth. Progesterone can help if you have had a previous preterm birth.