Why is Premature Birth so Dangerous?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Premature birth can be dangerous for both mother and child because it is a departure from the normal progress of pregnancy. Babies in particular are prone to a number of health problems as a result of premature birth, ranging from neurological disorders to potential death. Because premature birth is hazardous, doctors and mothers usually take a number of steps to avoid it, including extreme steps like bed rest. The goal is to keep the baby or babies in utero for as long as possible.

A fetus is viable after 37 weeks gestation.
A fetus is viable after 37 weeks gestation.

Premature birth is defined as any birth after viability, but before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Normal pregnancies last 40 weeks; viability is defined as the stage of fetal development when a fetus can survive outside of the body. Babies as young as 23 weeks have survived premature birth, although most infants born that early experience severe health problems.

Normal pregnancies last 40 months.
Normal pregnancies last 40 months.

The risk of premature birth is increased in mothers pregnant with multiple children, and as a general rule, mothers expecting multiple birth are monitored closely for signs of early labor, which can include contractions, breakthrough bleeding, or rupture of the amniotic fluid. When signs of premature labor are observed, medical professionals try to delay the labor; following the rule of thumb that every day in the womb cuts two days off a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) stay.

A NICU is a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where many premature babies are treated.
A NICU is a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where many premature babies are treated.

When babies are born prematurely, it means that they have not had time to develop fully, and this can result in severe health problems. One of the biggest risks of premature birth is respiratory problems, due to the underdeveloped lungs of the infant. Cardiovascular and neurological problems are also common, as are digestive problems, caused by the fact that the fetus has not fully developed its internal organs yet.

A variety of treatments are available for premature babies, although they don't always work.
A variety of treatments are available for premature babies, although they don't always work.

When premature birth is caused by birth defects, these birth defects can become more profound as a result of the fact that the fetus did not fully develop inside the mother. A variety of medical treatments ranging from the use of steroids to surgery can be used to treat birth defects, infections, and other medical problems associated with premature birth, but sometimes these problems cannot be overcome, and the infant may experience permanent problems.

Premature babies often stay in the NICU through their original due date.
Premature babies often stay in the NICU through their original due date.

Premature birth is also linked with low birth weight, which can cause health problems later in life, even if the infant appears to be normal. Low birth weight has been linked with developmental delays, diabetes, and weight gain later in life.

Delivering a baby before 37 weeks of pregnancy is considered premature.
Delivering a baby before 37 weeks of pregnancy is considered premature.

For mothers, premature birth is generally extremely stressful, and it can also be dangerous. Mothers may experience heavy bleeding or hemorrhage, and in instances where a Cesarean section is required, the mother is at risk of infections and other complications from surgery. Some studies have also linked premature birth and low birth weight with maternal health problems like cardiovascular disease.

Premature birth can be dangerous for mothers, as well as babies.
Premature birth can be dangerous for mothers, as well as babies.
Bed rest is one way that premature birth can be avoided.
Bed rest is one way that premature birth can be avoided.
Premature birth is linked with low birth weight, which can cause health problems later in life.
Premature birth is linked with low birth weight, which can cause health problems later in life.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Wisedly33

@Scrbblchick -- What a wonderful story! It's always great when you hear stories of little ones who beat the odds like that. It's not always that way. A girl in my town had her baby early, and he weighed 1 pound, 8 ounces. He lived for eight days, and they lost him to some kind of necrotizing bowel disease. It was heartbreaking and she pretty much went crazy.

The dad had left her with no word as to his whereabouts. Her mom ended up having her involuntarily committed because she tried to kill herself several times. It was really awful. So sad for everyone involved.

Scrbblchick

A good friend of mine delivered her daughter at, I think it was 26 weeks. She weighed 1 pound, 10 ounces, and was in the NICU from April to August, I think. Sara made it and she is about 8 years old now. She has some respiratory issues that resulted from her being so very early, but she's doing really well. Smart as a whip and doing great in school.

The cool thing is that her mom was a church youth director. Her experiences in the NICU prompted her to go to nursing school and then she got a job in the same NICU where her daughter was.

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