Common Short-Term Effects of Premature Birth


Newborn babies can experience a wide range of short-term health complications due to premature birth. The earlier a baby is born, the higher the risk of serious problems. A preemie baby’s bodily systems have not had the chance to develop properly and are immature, which is why many preemie babies are not stable on their own. The effects of premature birth are not always apparent directly after birth and may develop later as baby grows.

Underdeveloped organs

• Heart

1. Hypotension – Low blood pressure.

2. Patent Ductus Arteriosis (PDA) – Occurs when the ductus arteriosis (a blood vessel connecting two main arteries leading away from the heart) doesn’t close properly. This sometimes resolves spontaneously on its own, but if not, surgery is required.

• Lungs

1. Apnea – An extended pause in breathing.

2. Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS) – A deficiency in surfactant, a protein that adds stability to the tiny air sacs in the lungs and helps keep them from collapsing, causing babies to have challenges breathing shortly after birth. It is treated with surfactant as well as mechanical ventilation and oxygen.

3. Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) – Usually a result of severe RDS, BPD develops in the weeks after birth and entails injury to small airways. This can cause recurring lung infections for preemie babies.

• Gastrointestinal tract – Premature infants often have difficulty feeding because the digestive system is not fully developed, creating food intolerance, poor digestion, and malnutrition. A diet of breast milk can help reduce the risk of SIDS and it is packed with nutrients and antibodies to help newborn babies grow and thrive.

• Liver

1. Hypoglycemia – Low blood sugar due to baby having less stores of glycogen. An immature liver has problems converting the glycogen into glucose.

2. Infant Jaundice – Characterized by a yellow coloring in baby’s eyes and skin, jaundice is caused by a yellow pigment called bilirubin which some newborn babies’ bodies can’t rid itself of.

• Brain

1. Intraventricular Hemorrhage – Bleeding in the brain. Most hemorrhages are small and resolve on their own, but larger hemorrhages can result in brain damage and contribute to hydrocephalus.

2. Hydrocephalus – An accumulation of fluids in baby’s brain that could lead to surgical drainage.

Immune system and blood cells

1. Anemia – Red blood cell counts drop during the first month of a baby’s life, and for preemies, the decrease is typically greater than full term infants. Anemia means that the blood does not have enough red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body.

2. Infection (sepsis) – Preemie babies are especially susceptible to infection because of their underdeveloped immune systems, which is why most neonatal intensive care units have strict policies on who is allowed in the unit. If infection spreads to baby’s blood stream, it can cause sepsis, a serious illness.

Temperature Control challenges due to premature birth

Ever wonder why the NICU is full of incubators to house preemie babies? Babies born early don’t have the fat stores that full term infants have, so their tiny bodies have trouble generating enough heat to stay warm, which can lead to hypothermia. In addition, baby’s body uses up so much energy just to stay warm that there’s not any left to help baby grow. Thankfully temperature control is something that resolves as baby gets older and stronger.

It might seem like an intimidating list. Generally, when babies reach a high enough gestational age, many of these issues resolve on their own because baby’s body has had time to develop and function properly. Non-medical treatments for premature infants also go a long way in helping baby grow. Skin-to-skin contact, breast milk, and careful infection control can help babies in the NICU immensely.

What is your biggest worry about having a newborn in the NICU?


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