Preemies: Be Prepared for 5 Common Conditions
Up to half a million pre-term babies are born in the US each year. They’re cared for by neonatologists, pediatric doctors who specialize in the care of newborns who are premature or ill. Their patients include infants who are born at less than 37 weeks or weigh 5 lbs or less at birth, and full-term infants who develop difficulties after delivery.
Neonatologists treat infants with a variety of challenges, but if you’re the parent of a preemie be prepared for five conditions that are common due to your baby’s early birth and small size:
- Apnea. Because their brains are underdeveloped, pre-term newborns may occasionally forget to breathe especially when they’re asleep, so breathing monitors are attached to track respiration. While gentle stimulation is often enough to remind the baby to take a breath, to ensure the infant is getting sufficient oxygen, the neonatologist may prescribe a mild stimulant like caffeine or have the baby attached to a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) or ventilation machine. Prematurity apnea often disappears not long after the original due date has passed.
- Body temperature. All newborns tend to lose heat and have trouble regulating their body temperature, but because of their small size, pre-term infants tend to lose heat even more readily. Most are therefore placed in warmers or isolettes until they build up enough strength, energy and body fat reserves to regulate their body temperature more effectively.
- Bradycardia. Preemies tend to have very fast heart rates that range from 120 to 160 beats per minute, but many have periods where their heart rate slows significantly. This can occur for various reasons, but it most commonly follows a period of very shallow breathing or an episode of prematurity apnea, where the baby has temporarily forgotten to breathe. Many preemies must initially wear heart rate monitors that sound an alarm if the heart rate becomes too slow, but often the rhythm problems disappear once issues like apnea are under control.
- Difficulty feeding. Because feeding requires significant energy and coordination, difficulty feeding by mouth is quite common in preemies, whose brains and bodies may not yet be developed enough to manage the task. As a result, many are fed through an IV line or food tube until they build sufficient strength, coordination and body mass to begin feeding by mouth.
- Jaundice. While mild jaundice is common in full-term babies, it’s much more common in pre-term infants. The condition causes the skin and sometimes whites of the eyes to take on a yellow tinge, and it’s caused by the liver’s inability to process bilirubin. In many cases, the treatment is as simple as putting the baby under blue lights for several days, which stimulates the breakdown of bilirubin.
This article is not intended as medical advice. See your pediatrician for specific advice on your child’s health.