More than 25,000 babies are born prematurely in Australia each year. For more information, and for greater awareness, read on to learn more about premature babies.
What is a premature baby?
Most pregnancies last about 40 weeks (give or take a few weeks) so babies born before 37 weeks of gestation are known as premature or pre-term babies. (Gestational age is the length of time your baby has been developing in your uterus and is calculated from the first day of your last period.)
In Australia, almost one in 10 babies is born prematurely. Medical advances mean that more than nine out of those 10 survive, and most go on to develop normally.
Do some babies do better than others?
Survival rates are affected by how premature a baby is. Babies born between 32- and 35-weeks’ gestation in Australia usually don’t have any serious long-term problems. Babies may survive if they are born as early as 24 weeks but the risks of developmental delays are much higher.
It is usual for babies born before 32 weeks, and weighing 2.5kg or less, to be cared for by a team of specialists in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) until they have developed enough to survive independently. An NICU is a hospital unit with advanced life support equipment for the unique care of newborn babies.
Babies born between 32 and 37 weeks may require care in a special care nursery (SCN), staffed by a different specialist hospital team. A SCN is different from an NICU. It is for babies who need extra care but are stronger and whose health is more stable than those in the NICU. Most babies start off sleeping in an incubator (also known as a humidicrib) and there are lots of opportunities for parents to have hands-on-contact with their baby.
The degree of prematurity is often described by gestational age as:
- Extremely premature – from 24-28 weeks
- Very premature – 28-32 weeks
- Moderately premature – 32-34 weeks
- Late preterm – 34-37 weeks.
Why are babies born prematurely?
In about half of cases the cause is unknown. Some factors may increase the likelihood of a premature birth for a mother, if they:
- Get an infection
- Have a uterus or cervix problem
- Are having a multiple pregnancy (twins or more)
- Have medical conditions such as pre-eclampsia which means an early delivery
- Have diabetes or high blood pressure
- Have a history or premature births
Other factors can also be associated with a premature birth such as inadequate nutrition, too much physical activity, smoking, alcohol and drug use, too much stress, anxiety, depression, obesity, being underweight or lack of antenatal care. Being aged under 17 or over 35 can also factor in.
What are the best ways to ensure a smooth pregnancy?
To decrease the likelihood of having a pre-term birth there are some things you can do, such as:
- Eating well
- Not smoking, not drinking or taking drugs
- Keep active – recommended at least 30-45mins three times per week. Consult your care provider for appropriate activities for each stage of your pregnancy if you are unsure.
- Manage stress, depression and anxiety.
Unfortunately, even if you follow all pregnancy advice, there is still a chance of having a premature baby. Looking after yourself means you are doing everything possible for yourself and your unborn baby.
When should I raise the alarm?
If you ever don’t feel right, trust your own instincts and contact your midwife, doctor or hospital. Some premature labours can be stopped or delayed, and the longer baby stays in the womb, the better.
The following symptoms might not mean you’re in labour but you should have them checked out regardless.
- Swelling in your hands, feet or face,
- Contractions that happen more than four times in an hour
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea
- Blurriness, double vision or any other eye disturbances
- A dull, low backache
- A feeling your baby is pushing down or feeling pressure in your pelvis
- Abdominal cramps like period pain
- Your baby’s movements slowing down or stopping
- Fluid or blood coming out of your vagina.
What is it like to have a premature baby?
Premature babies and their parents may have an unexpected, stressful or challenging start to their lives together. With expert care, support and guidance though early problems often work out and most children who are born prematurely in Australia go on to develop and lead normal lives.
Here are some related links/foundations and further reading resources about premature babies: