Premature babies are defined as children born before 37 weeks completed in gestation; according to NHS Choices, statistically, some eight out of every 100 babies will be born prematurely. Premature labour can induce major anxiety in pregnant women about the health and life expectancy of their unborn babies—especially if preterm labour comes unexpectedly.
However, modern medical technologies mean that preemie survival rates in the UK are quite high. According to premature-babies.co.uk, babies born at 23 weeks have a 15 percent survival chance; this increases to 55 percent at 24 weeks and 80 percent at 25 weeks. Babies born from the 30th week of gestation onwards have more than a 90 percent chance of survival.
Signs of preterm labour
Sometimes, parents-to-be might plan for a preterm birth. This is usually because inducing labour early is safer for the baby than carrying them to term. Early inducement is usually advised in the case of serious health conditions in the mother or baby, such as pre-eclampsia.
Pre-eclampsia is a condition that develops in pregnant women and is a combination of hypertension (high blood pressure) and high levels of protein in the urine. Signs of preterm labour can be very similar to the signs of full-term labour. These symptoms include period-like cramping pains, breaking of water, backache and contractions.
Waters breaking before the expected date is called preterm pre-labour rupture of the membranes (P-PROM) and does not necessarily mean that a pregnant woman is in labour. Women should seek immediate medical attention in the occasion of P-PROM, as there is a risk of infection for both mother and baby. A pregnant woman will be tested for infections with blood and urine tests and will be prescribed antibiotics for a maximum of 10 days or until true labour begins—whichever comes first.
Sometimes, symptoms of preterm labour can even occur without the telltale sign of broken waters. A midwife or doctor can perform checks to ascertain whether a pregnant woman is in labour including a vaginal examination or blood pressure check. A midwife or healthcare professional should also ask about baby’s movements within the last 24 hours.
If premature labour has occurred, then a midwife or doctor may offer medication that will slow or stop labour. This includes the administration of corticosteroid injections that help prepare baby’s lungs for breathing outside of the womb.
Risks to baby
Premature babies tend to ‘catch up’ in terms of development stages to children born to term—including putting on weight and growth. But it is important to note that there are several health implications associated with surviving preterm babies, including long-term disabilities. For example, when labour is induced early as a result of medical conditions such as pre-eclampsia, a baby may have been deprived of oxygen in the womb.
Oxygen deprivation that has not resulted in death may cause brain damage and physical or developmental disabilities. Premature babies are also at a higher risk of developing neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy and autism, a condition defined as a group of disorders that affect a person’s speech, behavioural and social skills. Children born prematurely may also be at an increased risk of hearing loss, intestinal problems, vision problems and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Caring for your preemie
Sometimes, premature babies require special neonatal care in a hospital to help them with breathing, feeding and keeping warm once they are born. Neonatal care can either be provided on an ordinary postnatal ward or in a special newborn area. The duration of this special care depends on several factors including how prematurely the baby was born, whether they are gaining weight appropriately and if they have suffered health complaints as a result of early birth.
When it is time to take baby home, parents often feel nervous about coping with a premature baby without the support of hospital staff, but help is available. Every family in Britain is assigned a health visitor when a new baby is born.
A health visitor will carry out basic health checks for growth and development milestones, and will also be an invaluable source of advice and information when it comes to home safety, parenting skills and feeding. Mums should be as confident in feeding their premature baby as they would be with a baby carried to full term.
Every child is different, but if fed frequently and to their fill, babies should stop feeding when they have had enough. If you are concerned that baby is feeding too much or too little, then seek advice from a midwife or doctor.