Caring for your premature baby
The premature baby needs more help than the full term baby, especially if they are very small or if they were born less than 37 weeks pregnant. Find out more about the special needs of your premature baby.
Premature babies: special babies with special needs
Premature babies need help to survive outside the protective cocoon of their mother’s uterus, especially if they are very small or born less than 37 weeks pregnant. He may have special needs because parts of his body have not had time to develop fully.
Premature babies often have difficulty breathing, eating and maintaining their body temperature:
- Temperature: The baby’s body temperature can be maintained by placing him in an incubator or on a heated bed.
- Breathing: The premature baby may have difficulty breathing because their lungs are not fully formed. In such a case, he often needs supplemental oxygen. Some of the things you can do to ensure that the premature baby is getting enough oxygen are a Hood’s enclosure, ventilator or respirator, and continuous positive pressure ventilation.
- Feeding: Very small premature babies cannot meet their needs at first because they have difficulty sucking, swallowing and breathing. Many would spend more energy trying to suck and swallow than they would get milk. This is why your baby will receive his first calories using an infuser (also called an “intravenous line”) or a catheter (small tube) inserted through the nose or mouth into the stomach.
Because of these special needs, many premature infants may need to be admitted to a specialized nursery, neonatal intensive care unit, or premature infant care unit.
Is your baby at risk? Health problems that can affect premature babies
Most premature babies suffer from specific health problems. Among other things, your baby could suffer from the following disorders:
- Respiratory distress syndrome: difficulty in breathing resulting from the absence of surfactant, a substance that normally prevents the lungs from sagging
- Apnea and bradycardia: we call “apnea” a stop in breathing that lasts more than 20 seconds; the term “bradycardia” means a slow heart rate
- Transient newborn tachypnea: rapid breathing that occurs in the first hours or days after birth and then goes away
- Chronic lung disease or bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD): rapid or shallow breathing, wheezing, and crackling lung rales that may persist even after the baby is discharged from the hospital.
- Pneumonia: an infection that causes inflammation of the air sacs in the lungs and may interfere with the lungs’ ability to transfer oxygen to the blood.
Heart and blood pressure
- Persistent ductus arteriosus: a small hole in the heart that usually closes on its own, but is more likely to stay open in premature babies (it can be closed with medication or light surgery)
- Low pressure
Other health problems
- Jaundice: yellowing of the skin or eyes due to the liver not being developed enough to remove bilirubin, a product of the breakdown of red blood cells (the yellow color is due to excess bilirubin)
- Retinopathy of prematurity: abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eyes which can cause vision problems
- Necrotizing enterocolitis: a serious disease resulting in the death of tissue in the intestine
- Abnormal glucose level: the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood may be too high or too low (this does not mean that your child will have diabetes later)
It is important that you understand that premature babies will not have all of these health problems. See your doctor if you are concerned about your baby’s health.
Resources for new parents
Bringing a child into the world always brings its share of new challenges and transforms a life. Caring for a baby can be a daunting task, especially if your family already has young children. This is especially true if your baby was born prematurely, since premature babies require more intensive care and attention.
The following resources are designed to help new parents take care of their babies. Some provide information primarily for parents of premature babies; others provide general information for all new parents.
- Motherisk : educates new parents about the risks of taking medication while breastfeeding
- LaLeche League : Provides information on breastfeeding, offers support for breastfeeding mothers and helps women solve breastfeeding issues
- Canadian Pediatric Society : Provides a wealth of information on the health of babies and children
Remember that the healthcare team that takes care of your baby (doctors and nurses) is also a great source of information. So, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to let them know!