Coping with a premature baby

What do you do if your baby’s premature? Read our real mums’ and experts’ advice so you’re prepared if it happens to you

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Will it happen to me?

Any baby born between 24 and 37 weeks of pregnancy is classed as premature. “Around 50,000 babies are born prematurely every year. Of those, 20,000 need intensive care treatment,” says research midwife Jenny Carter from St Thomas’ Hospital in London. “It’s very unusual for a baby to survive if he’s born at less than 24 weeks, and about half of babies born under 26 weeks will have major problems.”

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Why does it happen?

“There are a number of known reasons why labour can start too soon,” says Jenny. “Twin and multiple pregnancies, where the womb is very stretched, account for about 20 per cent of premature births. Other causes can be a weak cervix that might open too soon as the baby gets bigger, and urine infections can also cause early labour.” If you think that might apply
to you, talk to your GP or midwife. Sometimes a woman will need to be induced into labour early because she develops a medical problem such as pre-eclampsia, which affects blood pressure.

“Lifestyle issues can also be a cause,” adds Jenny. “Smoking or using recreational drugs can increase the risk of prematurity, as can poor diet, and being under or overweight – so it’s a good plan to start a pregnancy as healthy as possible, and at an ideal weight.” But often, giving birth prematurely is just a terrible, unexplained occurrence.

What’s the survival rate?

Babies are tough cookies, all mums know that! And the good news is that premature babies are no different. The latest figures from the epicure study, a research study funded by the premature baby charity Bliss show that babies born before 26 weeks have a greater than ever chance of survival, up from 40% in 1995 to 52% now. Tommy’s is also funding vital research.

There are also medical developments, such as the introduction of artificial surfactant – a substance often lacking in premature babies’ lungs – which is helping them survive. Incubators have also become more sophisticated, and ventilators have vastly improved.

Sandie Skinner, a consultant neonatal nurse based in Winchester, says, “The wider use of steroids given to mothers in order to mature their babies’ lungs has ensured more premature babies are born in better condition.”

How is premature labour different?

Unlike other unforeseen complications (like an emergency caesarean), going into premature labour doesn’t have one ‘solution’. But doctors are well trained to cope. The first thing they’ll do is try to stop the contractions, with special drugs, followed by steroids to help your baby’s immature lungs develop.

“Premature babies are not quite ready to cope in the outside world. They may need help with regulating their temperature, feeding and breathing. They are also more prone to infections because their immune system is immature,” says Jenny. How much help they need depends on how early they were born, and whether there were other problems, such as pre-eclampsia.

A premature baby may be transferred to the SCBU or a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), to be monitored closely and kept warm in an incubator. Babies are often given antibiotics to help fight infections, too.

How will it make me feel?

“Having an early baby can knock you for six,” says psychologist Dr Sandra Wheatley, an expert in pregnancy and postnatal depression. “As well as being unprepared for the birth, mums may also feel anxiety and panic as well as feeling robbed of the rest of their pregnancy – the last trimester – where the real excitement starts, along with choosing names and things for the nursery.”

How can I bond with my premature baby?

Prem babies are often too delicate to be held, as their bodies and skin are still developing. That can be overwhelming for new mums, as Sarah, 33, from Lancashire, found out when her daughter Ellen May, 3, was born at 24 weeks, weighing 1lb 3oz. It was five weeks before she could hold her.

Sarah helped the bonding process by using kangaroo care (where the mum or dad holds the baby literally skin-to-skin) to encourage breastfeeding and regulate the baby’s temperature, breathing and heart rate. “I expressed milk for Ellen May and the nurses put my breast pads in her cot so she could smell my milk,” says Sarah.

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Where can I get help?

For more help and information on premature birth visit Bliss, the premature baby charity. To find out more about having a healthy pregnancy visit Tommys.

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