What to expect if your baby is born premature

The birth of your child is a day you look forward to with excitement, but you may also be experiencing some anxiety. What if something goes wrong? What if my baby isn’t healthy?

First of all, it’s normal to worry. One of the biggest fears of expectant mothers and fathers is having a premature infant. Like many others, you may fear prematurity because you don’t know what it means or what to expect.

Before we get into that, let me say this: Keep in mind that only 10 percent of all babies in the U.S. are born premature.

What does it mean when a baby is born premature?

“Prematurity” means being born early, specifically before the 37th week of pregnancy. There are three categories we use to classify the different stages of prematurity:

  • Late preterm: 34 to 36 weeks
  • Moderately preterm: 32 to 36 weeks
  • Very preterm: less than 32 weeks

The range of symptoms associated with prematurity can vary from one infant to another, and symptoms are often more severe the earlier in pregnancy that an infant is born. But don’t be alarmed — 70 percent of all preemies are considered late preterm and these babies often don’t require much special attention. However, if your baby is born moderately or very preterm, there is a chance he or she will need to spend some time in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, where doctors and nurses are specifically trained to care for the tiniest of patients.

Related: 5 things to look for when choosing a delivery location

You probably already know that premature babies weigh less than full-term babies, but there are other important differences and things we have to watch for in babies born before they are developmentally ready to enter the world.

Babies born premature may experience:

  • Poor feeding or digestion
  • Inability to properly regulate body temperature
  • Jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Respiratory issues
  • Delayed developmental milestones

How prematurity affects a child’s development

You may be concerned about your baby’s long-term health if born premature. Although premature babies often face developmental delays, don’t be concerned, as most babies catch up quickly as they age. It is expected that premature infants will learn skills or “milestones” more slowly than babies born full-term. The expectation is for preterm infants to reach milestones at the same time they would have if they had been born on their due date.

For example, if an infant was born 1 month early, the expectation would be for them to reach the usual 2 month milestones by 3 months of age. If an infant was born 2 months early, the expectation would be for them to reach 2 month milestones by 4 months of age, 4 month milestones by 6 months of age, etc.

Age of child born full-term Age of child born 1 month early Age of child born 3 months early Milestones
2 months 3 months 5 months Holds head up, looks at faces
4 months 5 months 7 months Babbles, brings hand to mouth
6 months 7 months 9 months Sits unsupported, responds to name
9 months 10 months 12 months Pulls to stand, says “bababa” or “dadada”
12 months 13 months 15 months Waves, walks while holding on
18 months 19 months 21 months Walks well, says several words

Children are expected to be “caught up,” or reaching milestones based on their true age, by their second birthday and should have normal development after age two. But if a child does seem to be obtaining milestones slowly, it does not mean there is something wrong. Any concerns about development should always be discussed with your child’s provider.

Related: My premature twins are a beautiful blessing

Although it’s normal to be concerned about the health of your baby, try to relax and remember that 90 percent of all babies in the U.S. are not born premature. Talk to your doctor about any concerns, potential risks and signs of preterm labor, so you can feel at ease throughout your pregnancy and labor experience.

Learn more about pregnancy support and labor and delivery services at Baylor Scott & White Health.

About the author

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Grace Glausier is the manager of digital content strategy for Baylor Scott and White Health. A graduate of Baylor University, she is passionate about connecting people through powerful stories and empowering individuals toward better health.

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What to expect if your baby is born premature