Premature birth is the leading cause of death in newborn infants. In Canada, 7.78 per cent of babies are born early – and with women waiting longer to have children, the number of premature births could increase.
The outcome for premature infants is better than ever, but these babies still face many challenges. Left untreated, these early medical hurdles can have life-long consequences.
These are five of the most common problems.
The first few days
For premature infants, the challenges start on day one.
Difficulty breathing is often the first sign of trouble. Neonatal respiratory distress syndrome is often diagnosed minutes after birth.
Premature babies lack a substance called surfactant, which helps our lungs expand and contract. This is why most babies born before 28 weeks have breathing difficulties.
The problem tends to get worse two to four days after birth, but most babies recover. Serious complications can result in blindness, brain damage, or chronic asthma.
Seizures can also effect premature infants. Seizures happen when the brain’s neurons misfire, sending many conflicting signals at once. It is not always known what makes certain people at risk for seizures, or what triggers one.
Being deprived of oxygen before or during birth increases the chance of seizures, so premature infants are at risk.
In the first days of life, seizures do not usually point towards epilepsy. A baby that has seizures in the days following birth may never have another one.
With their hospital days behind them, parents can breathe a sigh of relief. But some medical problems may surface later in life.
Vision problems are common in premature infants. Early on, they are at risk of developing retinopathy of prematurity. This can cause vision loss if not treated. In rare cases, it causes retinal detachment, which can cause blindness.
90 per cent of babies with this condition do not need treatment, and early treatment is usually successful.
Hearing problems often go unnoticed until the child is older. Infections, injuries, and congenital defects can all cause hearing loss in premature infants. The risk of increases with the degree of prematurity.
Some hearing issues can be treated with medication or surgery. Others require hearing aids or a cochlear implant.
Cerebral palsy is also a risk. Cerebral palsy is a disorder that effects movement, muscle tone, speech, and cognitive ability. It can result from infection, problems with blow flow, or brain injury.
With weakened immune systems, all premature babies are susceptible to infection. The lower a baby’s birth weight is, the greater the risk of cerebral palsy.
Children with mild forms of cerebral palsy have a normal life expectancy. Treatment depends on the severity of the disorder. A long-term care plan might include physical therapy, pain management, and speech therapy.
Prevention What can we do about it? The best way to prevent these problems is to lower the chance of premature labour. A healthy pregnancy is less likely to result in the medical problems that cause premature birth.
Unfortunately, premature births can’t always be prevented. Doctors don’t always know why a baby is born early, and about half of all premature births happen for unknown reasons. That’s why it’s important to learn the signs of preterm labour, even if you aren’t at risk. Spotting the signs and getting to the hospital quickly will improve the outcome for both mother and child.