By Melodie Veldhuizen
You are looking forward excitedly to your pink foot’s arrival and tick off the days on the calendar. Then the unforeseen happens: Baby arrives weeks before the expected date. Nothing can prepare a parent for the surprise (or shock) of a premature baby.
You wonder: ‘What did I do wrong?’, ‘Will our baby survive?’, ‘Will she develop normally or will there be complications?’, ‘Will we be good parents?’.
Some facts about premature babies
Causes: Medical conditions such as preeclampsia, infection, high blood pressure and diabetes, as well as placental abruption (separation) can lead to an early confinement. Other factors are an unhealthy lifestyle before and during pregnancy, such as smoking, drug and alcohol abuse and overweight. Women with a history of short-term pregnancies and women who fall pregnant at a very early or very late age, as well as moms of sets of multiples, could possible give birth to premature babies. In many cases the cause of premature birth can however not be established. Whatever the cause, feels of guilt will not contribute to your baby’s growth and development. Instead, remain calm, positive and focus on being the best mom possible.
– Premature babies are usually born at 28 to 36 weeks of pregnancy. The closer your baby is born to her planned date, the lesser the possibility of complications.
– Typical characteristics: They are tiny and the head is large compared to the rest of the body. The skin is red or pink, dry or flaky and shiny and transparent, with visible veins below the skin. The protective white cheese-like layer on the skin is absent, possibly because it is usually only manufactured during the end stage of the pregnancy. There is little body fat below the skin, which is why she cannot regulate her body temperature herself. Fine hairs, which eventually disappear, are to be found on the back and shoulders. Their facial features are ‘sharp’ and undefined. The eyelids initially seem to be clinging together, but by 30 weeks the eyes should start focusing. Due to underdeveloped lungs they cry very softly or even soundlessly. Their genitals are also very small and underdeveloped. As the grow they start to look more like a typical new-born baby.
– Directly after birth they are immediately moved to the neonatal intensive care unit and placed in an incubator. Feeding and oxygen tubes are attached to the baby – for you as parents this could be upsetting. When baby can swallow by herself to drink her milk and her lungs have developed satisfactorily, when she can regulate her body temperature herself and has gained sufficient weight, she will be moved from the incubator to a normal cradle and eventually be released.
– Contact and bonding with your baby can take place immediately – it need not wait until she is released. Skin contact by way of ‘kangaroo care’ by both parents is encouraged. It offers warmth, stabilises the heartbeat and breathing, promotes weight gain, allows the baby deeper sleep and makes her more placid when awake, so that she will cry less. You will be able to start breastfeeding sooner, which will help her gain weight quicker. If she is still too weak to be picked up, touch her as much as possible.
– Feeding initially takes place intravenously or by way of a feeding tube through the mouth or nose. To suck and swallow by herself is a skill which she has to develop and is a challenge as she tires quickly. Mother’s milk is the best as is provides antibodies and other essential ingredients that strengthen the immune system and heighten the resistance against infection. Until you can breastfeed, pump out your milk – it can be given to her through a feeding tube. It stimulates your milk production for when she is ready for breastfeeding.
– Health problems that normally occur are breathing and heart problems, as well as digestion problems, jaundice, anaemia and infection due to the underdeveloped immune system. Take your baby to the paediatrician regularly for follow-up visits; if necessary, he will refer you to specialists.
– Sleeping pattern: Initially, they sleep up to 22 hours per day, but usually not deeply and also not for long, consecutive periods. They are often also drowsy when awake.
– Development: Premature babies usually develop normally, but development problems such as a delay in speech development, and problems with growth and movement, teething, sight and hearing could occur. Some premature babies later develop social and emotional problems. Should you be concerned, consult the paediatrician, who will refer you to appropriate experts if necessary.
– Other milestones: They develop slower than their contemporaries, but will eventually reach their milestones. There is a formula by which to calculate your baby’s development and milestones, also known as adjusted age. This is the chronological age minus the number of weeks or months that the baby was born too early. A baby of six months who was born two months too early, will therefore have an adjusted age of four months and will have the development level of a baby of four months. By two to two and a half years of age they should be at the same development stage as their contemporaries.
– Premature babies have two birthdays – the one on which they were born and the planned birth date.
– Spend enough time with your baby in the neonatal care unit, but also get enough rest. If possible, go home regularly. Prepare the nursery and make sure that older siblings, if big enough, know what to expect when baby comes home.
– Read as much as possible about the care of your premature baby. For more information about your premature baby’s care, feeding, health and development, consult
– Join a support group for parents with premature babies.
Premature babies are fighters and will flourish under your love and good care. Enjoy your special little one.
Healthy Children. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/preemie/Pages/Caring-For-A-Premature-Baby.aspx
Living and Loving. https://www.livingandloving.co.za/baby-blog/baby-health/caring-for-your-premature-baby
Pregnancy, birth and baby. https://www.pregnancybirthbaby.org.au/premature-baby
What to expect. https://www.whattoexpect.com/first-year/premature-babies-101.aspx