Premature babies are infants born before 37 weeks of pregnancy are completed. Oftentimes, multiple deliveries, such as twins, triplets, or more, are born prematurely. In such, and other instances, parents should know about caring for a premature baby.
According to the World Health Organisation, 15 million babies are born prematurely yearly. Of those, approximately one million die due to preterm birth complications. Furthermore, most of the babies who survive face physical and learning disabilities. They can also develop sensory problems like poor eyesight or hearing.
Research shows that preterm birth complications are the leading cause of infant mortality for children under five years.
What causes pre-term birth?
Premature labour happens when contractions cause cervical opening between weeks 20 and 37 of pregnancy. Most pre-term births occur spontaneously. However, others are due to pregnancy complications.
The factors that increase the risk of premature labour are:
- If the most recent labour was also premature.
- Smoking cigarettes
- Using narcotics
- Multiple pregnancies like twins or triplets
- Uterus and placenta problems
- Infections in the amniotic fluid and genital tract
- High blood pressure
- Autoimmune disorders
- Stress and depression
- Too much amniotic fluid
- Vaginal bleeding
- Getting pregnant within less than a year
- The mother being too young or too old
More research is needed to determine the exact triggers and mechanisms of preterm labour.
Can you prevent preterm labour?
It’s not entirely possible to prevent it. However, mothers can take specific measures to ensure they deliver safely.
Avoid drugs: Stopping drug habits such as smoking or drinking reduces the risk of preterm labour.
Seek prenatal care: Regularly get prenatal care to monitor the baby’s and mother’s health. Having a history of premature births will also require more visits to the clinic for more checkups.
A healthy diet: Providing good nutrition for the mother and baby is essential in maintaining the health of the pregnancy. Research shows that a diet that contains nuts, seeds, fish, and seed oils reduces the risk of premature birth.
Consider how many embryos you want to be transferred when using Assisted Reproductive Technology. In-vitro fertilization can lead to multiple pregnancies and increase the risk of premature labour.
Caring for a premature baby
A premature baby weighs about 2kg or less. An average full-term baby weighs about 3kg. With modern medical facilities, preterm infants have a higher chance of survival. Preterm babies are smaller and must be monitored in a neonatal intensive care unit. They also have very low body fat, and their heads are bigger than their torsos.
The skin will be almost translucent, and blood vessels can be visible. This means they are susceptible to cold and must be placed in an incubator. In the NICU, doctors monitor breathing and heart rate because the baby’s organs may be too small. Some infants may need specialized equipment to help deliver oxygen.
Depending on the baby’s health, mothers can be allowed skin-to-skin contact with their babies in the NICU. Breastfeeding is also possible if doctors say it’s safe. Some babies may need tubal or intravenous feeding.
Follow the paediatrician’s directions when touching, holding, or feeding the baby.
You can use the WHO guidelines for caring for a premature baby when discharged.
Kangaroo Mother Care
Kangaroo Mother Care is prolonged skin contact between the parents and the baby. It’s a highly recommended routine care for premature babies. It can start at the hospital or at home. In addition, it should be done for as many hours as possible each day.
Research shows that Kangaroo mother care significantly improves a preterm baby’s chances of survival. KMC also promotes healthy weight gain, regulates heart rate and breathing, and promotes better sleep. For mothers, KMC also reduces the risk of postnatal depression. It can also increase the amount of breast milk produced.
Fathers and other secondary caregivers can also bond with the baby.
Use mother’s milk
Mother’s milk contains a specialized cocktail of highly beneficial nutrients for preterm infants. Infant formulas are safe and nutritious but don’t contain the antibodies and immune boosters that naturally occur in breast milk. If you can’t breastfeed, consider a wet nurse or donor milk.
A mother may be asked to take iron and zinc supplements to ensure the breastmilk contains enough minerals for the baby’s health and development. Furthermore, the baby needs extra vitamin D for better absorption of calcium, phosphorus, and better bone mineral density.
Mothers of preterm babies will need vitamin A supplementation. Vitamin A controls cellular growth. It also controls respiratory and gastrointestinal health. It also boosts the immunity of infants.
If breast milk isn’t available, the specially-made preterm formula can be used. A preterm formula can be fed to the baby for the first six months after birth. Ensure you use preterm formula and not regular infant formula. The preterm formula is nutrient-enriched to support better nutrient absorption and physical and mental growth.
Another way to care for a premature baby is to apply sunflower or coconut oil lightly and gently on the baby. This helps moisturize the baby’s skin and provides a barrier against pathogens. These oils are emollients. Apply them on the baby’s body up to six times a day. Avoid the face and the head. Speak with your paediatrician to get advice on the safest emollient for your baby.
Taking care of a premature baby can be difficult and frightening. With how high the mortality rate is for preterm infants, it can feel like a daunting task. Taking prenatal care to be as healthy as possible reduces the risk of premature birth. However, following paediatric guidelines can help increase the chances of your baby growing to full health.
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