Are there disorders or conditions associated with preterm birth?
Preterm birth is a serious health problem. Preterm infants are at increased risk for newborn health complications, such as breathing problems, and even death. Among the health challenges faced by preterm infants are:
- Breathing problems because of underdeveloped lungs
- Greater risk for a serious lung condition, known as respiratory distress syndrome
- Greater risk for cerebral palsy
- Greater risk for learning and developmental disabilities
- Greater risk for life-threatening infections
- Low birth weight
- Poor feeding
- Underdeveloped organs or organ systems
Most preterm infants need to stay in the hospital for several weeks or more, often in a neonatal (pronounced nee-oh-NATE-ahl) intensive care unit (NICU). Preterm infants who are delivered at hospitals with high-level NICUs have a better chance of survival. High-level NICUs provide specialized care for infants with serious health problems. These units are well equipped and have doctors and nurses with advanced training and experience in caring for preterm infants. The team caring for the infant may include a neonatologist (pronounced nee-oh-nate-AHL-oh-jist), a doctor who specializes in treating problems in newborns.1
In certain highly specialized care units, surfactant (pronounced sir-FAK-tant) therapy may be used for infants born very early. Surfactant is a substance that helps the air sacs stay inflated in the lungs. The lungs begin making surfactant at around 23 weeks of pregnancy. Lack of surfactant is the main cause of respiratory distress syndrome (breathing problems) in preterm infants. Infants who need surfactant replacement therapy often are very sick and need highly specialized care.1
Preterm infants also face an increased risk of lasting disabilities, such as mental disabilities, learning and behavioral problems, cerebral palsy (a group of disorders that affect a person's ability to move and maintain balance and posture), lung problems, and vision and hearing loss. Infants born too early may be at increased risk of symptoms associated with autism (such as social, behavioral, and speech problems).2,3 Studies also suggest that infants born with low birth weight, which is common in infants born preterm, are at increased risk of certain adult health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.4
What are the effects of preterm birth on families?
Preterm birth can have profound effects on families, both emotionally and financially. In addition to the time spent in the NICU, preterm infants spend an average of 17 days in the hospital, compared to just over 2 days for full-term infants; they also have 50% more doctor's office visits in the first year.5
In the first 6 months of the preterm infant's life, the mother will miss, on average, almost 6 weeks of work—2 weeks more than most mothers of full-term infants.5
Having a preterm infant can cause hardships and emotional challenges for families. Preterm infants sometimes die, and those that survive may have long-term disabilities.
For resources families can use, visit the Resources and Publications section.
- American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2011). Early preterm birth FAQ. Retrieved April 23, 2012, from http://www.acog.org/~/media/For%20Patients/faq173.pdf?dmc=1&ts=20120323T1605318647 (PDF - 282 KB) [top]
- Limperopoulos, C., Bassan, H., Sullivan, N. R., Soul, J. S., Robertson Jr., R. L., Moore, M., et al. (2008, April). Positive screening for autism in ex-preterm infants: Prevalence and risk factors. Pediatrics, 121(4), 758–765. Retrieved April 23, 2012, from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/121/4/758.abstract [top]
- Schendel, D., and Bhasin, T. K. (2008, June). Birth weight and gestational age characteristics of children with autism, including a comparison with other developmental disabilities. Pediatrics, 121, 1155–1164. Retrieved April 23, 2012, from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/121/6/1155.short [top]
- Hovi, P., Andersson, S., Eriksson, J. G., Järvenpää, A. L., Strang-Karlsson, S., Mäkitie, O., et al. (2007). Glucose regulation in young adults with very low birth weight. New England Journal of Medicine, 356, 2053–2063. [top]
- March of Dimes. (2010). The March of Dimes data book for policy makers: Maternal, infant, and child health in the United States 2010. Retrieved May 4, 2012, from http://www.marchofdimes.com/advocacy/data-book-for-policy-makers-maternal-and-infant-health-in-the-united-states.aspx [top]