Sam and Alyssa Robb are no strangers to the experience of premature birth. Their son Baylor, now age four, was born at just 26 weeks. Baylor isn’t alone: He’s one of more than half a million infants born prematurely every year.
The ideal length of a pregnancy is 39 weeks. This amount of time allows your baby’s brain, lungs, heart and other organs to develop more fully. It also gives him or her the chance to gain an optimal amount of weight before delivery.
Any baby born earlier than 37 weeks is considered premature, according to the March of Dimes. As you might imagine, premature infants, or “preemies” as they are commonly called, are born much smaller than full-term babies. At 26 weeks, Baylor Robb weighed just over 2 pounds.
Coming into the world earlier than expected can put infants at risk for a variety of health concerns, too. Some of these health problems are temporary, while others can become lifelong issues. For example, prematurity can make a baby more likely to develop conditions such as:
- Anemia, the inability to produce enough red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body
- Jaundice, yellowing of the eyes and skin caused when the liver isn’t functioning optimally
- Retinopathy of prematurity, an abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eye, which can lead to vision loss
- Patent ductus arteriosus, a problem that occurs when the connection between two main blood vessels near the heart doesn’t close properly, which may ultimately lead to heart failure
- Intraventricular hemorrhage, or bleeding in the brain
- Infections, including pneumonia, meningitis, and sepsis
Premature birth can also pose a range of respiratory problems, including apnea, respiratory distress syndrome, and bronchopulmonary dysplasia. When preterm babies’ tiny lungs aren’t yet fully developed, they may need to be treated with a ventilator, a machine that helps them breathe. Because of such concerns, most preemies must spend time in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where they can receive round-the-clock care.
The risk of complications from premature birth depends on the individual pregnancy, and it’s difficult to predict how they will affect each baby, says the Robbs’ physician, Hyagriv N. Simhan, M.D., chief of the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC.
“These infants’ developing organ systems are immature and fragile,” he explains. “It’s a very, very delicate time period for babies.”
Indeed, Baylor’s twin brother, Hudson, received the same treatment but suffered collapsed lungs and a possible brain bleed and died just two days after he was born. Yet Baylor didn’t experience any major complications and is today a healthy toddler.
This uncertainty makes understanding preterm birth all the more crucial. Some factors clearly increase your odds of delivering early. Your pregnancy is considered high risk if you are carrying multiples (twins, triplets, or more), if you previously had a preterm delivery, or if you have a family history of premature birth (if your sister delivered before 37 weeks, for instance).
Yet there’s much we don’t still know about prematurity—and this need for more knowledge is fueling exciting research at Magee into its possible causes and prevention.
“The analogy I make is that we don’t make any strides towards stopping death from heart attacks by only treating heart attacks when they happen,” says Dr. Simhan. “The real opportunity in heart disease is prevention—and the same thing is true with preterm birth. Our research is involved in preventing prematurity by understanding environmental and genetic contributors and using that information to understand which women are at risk.”
As we continue to expand our insight into premature birth, the best thing expectant mothers can do is to be proactive in their care.
“Right now, there isn’t a lot women can do themselves to prevent premature birth,” explains Dr. Simhan. “That loss of control can be frustrating, but everyone can participate in their own prenatal care.”
That means establishing a close relationship with your obstetrician and nurses, attending regular appointments, and receiving screening tests as recommended.
“The Robbs were very motivated to do things positively and have as successful an outcome as possible,” he says. “It’s important to ask a lot of questions and be vigilant about your pregnancy.”
Jessica Cerretani is a freelance health writer.