Most expectant parents do not dream about their baby being born prematurely, yet this occurrence is a reality for many. Premature babies, because of their early arrival, have the potential for health problems both at birth and later in life. Many parents unexpectedly face a period of time when their premature baby must grow and recover in the hospital without being prepared for what she will look like. A premature baby can look very different from a baby born full-term.
A typical pregnancy is about 40 weeks in length, and a premature baby is one born before 37 weeks' gestation. According to the March of Dimes Foundation, more than one-half million premature babies are born every year, with over 70 percent arriving between 34 and 36 weeks' gestation. Fewer than 1 percent of babies are born before 28 weeks.
The earlier a baby is born, the more noticeable the difference in skin appearance. Babies born several weeks early have thin skin that appears translucent. The skin may be pink and shiny, and veins are visible beneath the surface. Premature babies also have fine, soft hair that covers their bodies. This is called lanugo and is present in the womb but typically disappears before birth in a full-term baby.
Premature babies weigh less because they have not had additional time in the womb to grow. For this reason, they are small in size and frequently weigh less than five pounds. Premature babies lack brown fat, which is a source of insulation at birth. These babies are unable to regulate their temperature and are prone to heat loss. Lack of brown fat also contributes to a premature baby’s small size and thin appearance.
Because a premature baby is small and underdeveloped, he does not have as much vigor as a full-term baby. A premature baby has a weak cry and less energy for activities. He may sleep most of the time and not even wake up to eat. His muscle tone may be poor and his arms and legs will appear floppy. Muscle strength and increased energy will develop as he grows.
A premature baby may need the assistance of medical devices to help her breathe and regulate her feedings. She may have difficulties with feeding and must take food through a tube that enters through the nose and ends in the stomach. Breast milk is periodically pumped through this tube for feedings, but when not in use, it remains attached to the face. A baby who has trouble breathing may require ventilation, which includes a tube that enters the mouth and is secured in place. The tube is connected to a machine which pushes small amounts of oxygenated air directly into the lungs to help with breathing.