Basic information for topics, such as “What is it?” is available in the About Preterm Labor and Birth section. Answers to other frequently asked questions (FAQs) specific to preterm labor and birth are in this section.
Premature infants are at increased risk for many health complications, such as breathing problems, and even death. In addition to regular infant health care needs, premature infants often require special care for these problems. The earlier in pregnancy a birth occurs, the higher the risk for long-term health problems and the greater the likelihood of long-term disability.
Among the health challenges faced by premature infants are:
- Breathing problems, including respiratory distress syndrome
- Cerebral palsy
- Intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD)
- Life-threatening infections
- An intestinal disease called necrotizing enterocolitis
- 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 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, a doctor who specializes in treating problems in newborns.1
Surfactant 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 IDD, learning difficulties, 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 spectrum disorder (such as social, behavioral, and other problems).2,3 Studies also suggest that infants born at 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
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 13 days in the hospital, compared to a little more than 1 day for full-term infants.5 Parents of preterm infants also may miss more work than those of full-term infants.
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 https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/preterm-labor-and-birth
- 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.
- Schendel, D., & 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.
- 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.
- March of Dimes. (2012). The March of Dimes Data Book for Policy Makers: Maternal, Infant, and Child Health in the United States 2012. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from http://www.marchofdimes.com/materials/Databookforpolicymakers.pdf (PDF 10.1 MB)