Depending on how early delivery occurs during pregnancy, a premature baby can have different characteristics than a full-term baby. Over time, the characteristics become less noticeable. Premature babies require close monitoring and sometimes special medical assistance in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of a hospital. Advances in medicine have given premature babies a better chance at overcoming the obstacles they face from the shortened stay in the womb.
Low Body Fat
Chubbiness is a typical trait of full-term babies. A premature baby may have very little body fat. This can make the infant appear very thin. The baby will not weigh nearly the amount of a full-term baby. This weight range varies, but a typical full-term baby weighs at least 7 pounds at delivery. The earlier the baby arrives, the lower the number will be on the scale. Pediatrician, Dr. Sears, points out that 90 percent of the baby's weight is gained after the fifth month of pregnancy, and 50 percent in the final two months.
Premature babies who arrive between weeks 30 and 32 are likely to have thin skin as a result of the limited body fat, explains the March of Dimes. The ribs may be easy to see under the skin. Regardless of the infant's natural skin tone, the tissue may appear red. The skin is often wrinkly. Extremely premature infants, those who are delivered anytime between the 24th and 27th weeks, have yet to develop the exterior layer of skin, which begins solidifying in the 26th week. March of Dimes points out that the skin may appear smooth and shiny and be too fragile for anything other than light touching.
Very premature babies have no hair at all. They lack the lanugo, or fine fuzz that covers an infant's body beginning around week 24 or shortly after. A premature baby who arrives closer to term may have fuzz all over the body, even the head.
The eyelids are fused shut until the 26th week of pregnancy. At that time, the lids open on their own, revealing eyes and sometimes eyelashes, states the March of Dimes. A baby born prior to the 26th week will continue to have sealed eyes.
Without the needed body fat and muscle, a preemie will not move the way a full-term baby will. The movements of a baby born between 29 and 32 weeks may appear jerky instead of smooth. Babies born before these weeks may not move much at all. The arms and legs may remain in an outstretched position from the lack of muscle tone. Around the 35th week, a preemie has enough muscle tone to get into the fetal position, like a full-term newborn. Sucking to eat may be difficult due to an infant's poor muscle tone. The cries of an early baby are often weak.
Other signs of a premature baby include evidence that development has not finished. The lungs are some of the last parts of the body to develop. A premature baby is often provided oxygen to maintain life until the lungs finish developing. The genitals may be small or underdeveloped in a preemie. In proportion to the rest of the body, the infant's head is likely to appear long and irregular.
- The March of Dimes: Preemies: The Essential Guide for Parents of Premature Babies
- Medline Plus: Premature Infant
- HealthyChildren.org: Caring For A Premature Baby
- The Premature Baby Book, William Sears, M.D, et al.; 2004