A premature birth is a birth that takes place more than three weeks before the baby is due — in other words, after less than 37 weeks of pregnancy, which usually lasts about 40 weeks.
Premature birth gives the baby less time to develop in the womb. Premature babies, especially those born earliest, often have complicated medical problems.
Depending on how early a baby is born, he or she may be:
Most premature births occur in the late preterm stage.
A premature birth means that your baby hasn't had the usual amount of time to develop in the womb before needing to adapt to life outside the womb.
The signs that a baby's gestation has been cut short include:
The following table shows the median weight, length and head circumference of premature babies at different gestational ages.
Premature babies can quickly develop serious complications, such as infection in the bloodstream (sepsis), respiratory distress syndrome and bleeding in the brain.
When to see a doctor
Often, the specific cause of premature birth isn't clear. Many factors may increase the risk of premature birth, however, including:
For unknown reasons, black women are more likely to experience premature birth than are women of other races. But premature birth can happen to anyone. In fact, many women who have a premature birth have no known risk factors.
While not all premature babies experience complications, being born too early can cause short-term and long-term health problems for preemies. Generally, the earlier a baby is born, the higher the risk of complications. Birth weight plays an important role, too. Some problems may be apparent at birth, while others may not develop for weeks or months.
For some premature babies, difficulties may not appear until later in childhood or even adulthood. Not performing well in school is often a prime concern. Some studies suggest that premature babies may face an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adulthood.
Preparing for your appointment
As the parent of a premature baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), you'll interact, on an ongoing basis, with many care providers for your baby. Members of the NICU team caring for your infant may include:
Besides these health professionals, you are also an important part of the care provided for your baby. Ideally, you'll work in collaboration with your baby's care providers, eventually learning how to hold, feed and care for your baby.
What you can do
Uncertainty can be frightening — as can seeing monitors, respirators and other types of equipment in the NICU. Ask questions about your baby's condition or write them down and seek answers when you're ready. For instance, you may want to ask:
Tests and diagnosis
After your premature baby is moved to the NICU, he or she may undergo a number of tests. Some are ongoing, while others may be performed only if the NICU staff suspect a particular complication.
Possible tests for your premature baby may include:
If your baby develops any complications, more specialized testing may be needed.
Treatments and drugs
At the hospital, the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) provides round-the-clock care for your premature baby.
Taking your baby home
In some cases, a child may be allowed to go home before meeting one of these requirements — as long as the baby's medical team and family create and agree on a plan for home care and monitoring.
Your baby's health care team will help you learn how to care for your baby at home. Before discharge from the hospital, your baby's nurse or a hospital discharge planner may ask you about:
Intensive care for your premature baby
In the hospital, your baby may first be monitored unclothed on a warmer bed. Later your baby will probably be in an incubator, an enclosed plastic bassinet that's kept warm to help your baby maintain ...
Lifestyle and home remedies
When it's time to bring your baby home, you might feel relieved, excited — and anxious. Take time to consider ways to prepare for life at home with your baby after you've left the hospital:
Coping and support
Caring for a premature baby can be physically and emotionally exhausting. You may be anxious about your baby's health and the long-term effects of premature birth. You may feel angry, guilty or overwhelmed. Some of these suggestions may help during this difficult time:
Caring for a premature baby is a great challenge. Take it one day at a time. Despite the worries and setbacks, celebrate the surprising resilience and strength of your preemie, and cherish the time you can spend getting to know your son or daughter.
Last Updated: 2011-12-29
© 1998-2016 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. A single copy of these materials may be reprinted for noncommercial personal use only. "Mayo," "Mayo Clinic," "MayoClinic.com," "Mayo Clinic Health Information," "Reliable information for a healthier life" and the triple-shield Mayo logo are trademarks of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
Terms and conditions of use