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The Development of Preemie Babies

by Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell

A premature baby is born before the 37th week of gestation. Depending on how early your baby enters the world, she may have any number of health problems if her little organs haven't had enough time to fully develop. Preemies weigh considerably less than full-term babies; they need 24-hour-a-day care in a neonatal intensive care unit. The good news is that it doesn't take long before your pint-sized newborn catches up to her peers who were born at 37 to 42 weeks of pregnancy.

Special Needs

Preemies are divided into three degrees, explains MayoClinic.com. Late-term preterm infants are born between 34 and 37 weeks; very-preterm babies leave the womb prior to 32 weeks of gestation and extremely-preterm newborns are born at less than 25 weeks of development. The earlier your preemie is born the greater the risk of health complications. Potential health problems that require NICU care can include underdeveloped lungs that may lead to a breathing disorder called respiratory distress syndrome or RDS. Preemies can suffer from RDS because their immature lungs are missing a liquid substance called surfactant that allows lungs to expand. Artificial surfactants used in combination with a ventilator can encourage normal breathing and maintain sufficient oxygen levels in the blood. Anemia -- a low red blood cell count -- and heart murmurs are not uncommon in preemies. The NICU is designed to provide an atmosphere that limits stress to the infant and meets his basic needs of warmth, nutrition, and protection to assure proper growth and development.

Nutritional Requirements

Premature babies have unique nutritional needs, partly due to the fact that their digestive systems are not fully formed and because they grow more quickly than full-term babies. Feeding slowly is important to lower the risk of an intestinal infection specific to preemies called necrotizing enterocolitis or NEC, according to KidsHealth.org a website published by the Nemours Foundation. NEC serious gastrointestinal disorder. Intravenous fluids to replenish fluid and nutrition antibiotics for infection are among the possible treatments for NEC. Breast milk can be pumped or formula can be fed to your preemie via a tube that enters your infant's nose or mouth and travels down to the stomach. Breast milk is preferable to formula because it contains proteins that encourage growth and fend off infection. Formula fed preemies may need vitamin and iron supplements; if that's the case, your doctor will let you know. Most preemies require eight to 10 feedings daily. Solids can typically be introduced around 5 months after the baby's expected due date -- as opposed to his actual date of birth.

Development

To accurately measure your preemies development you must first determine her adjusted age -- that's her age in weeks minus the number of weeks she was premature, explains MayoClinic.com. If your baby was born four weeks early, at 4 months her adjusted or corrected age is 2 months. It can take up to two years for a preemie to become developmentally equal to her full-term peers. In the meantime your little one's growth will lag behind babies born at or beyond 37 weeks of pregnancy. Your preemie may surprise you from time to time with growth spurts.

Vision and Hearing Problems

Preemies are more vulnerable to hearing and vision problems. For example, crossed eyes or strabismus is common in babies born before their anticipated due date. The problem typically subsides on its down. Some preemies -- particularly those born at 32 weeks gestation of earlier -- may have an eye disease called retinopathy of prematurity or ROP, reports FamilyDoctor.org, a website published by the American Academy of Family Physicians. The condition causes small blood vessels in the eye to grow incorrectly. The condition can be successfully treated. Premature babies may have trouble hearing. Ask your doctor to test your baby for hearing problems if he doesn't seem to hear you. You can check for hearing problems at home by making noises behind or to the side of your baby. If he fails to turn his or head or bounce up at a loud noise, his hearing may be impaired.

Considerations

As your baby grows into the toddler and preschool years she should fit in perfectly well despite a 2 to 4 month difference in age or development. Keep an eye out for possible academic problems when your little one starts elementary school. Learning disabilities -- such as being slow in reading and math -- may go unnoticed until the first few years of school. Some preemies may need speech or physical therapy as they get older.

About the Author

Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell is a broadcast journalist who began writing professionally in 1980. Her writing focuses on parenting and health, and has appeared in “Spirituality & Health Magazine" and “Essential Wellness.” Hellesvig-Gaskell has worked with autistic children at the Fraser School in Minneapolis and as a child care assistant for toddlers and preschoolers at the International School of Minnesota, Eden Prairie.

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