Premature baby? Understand your preemie's special needs

If you have a premature baby, understand the challenges your preemie might face — and remember the importance of meeting your own special needs.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

If your baby is born too early, the miracle of birth might be overshadowed by concern about your preemie's health and the possible long-term effects of prematurity. However, there's much you can do to take care of your premature baby — and yourself — as you look toward the future.

Your preemie's special challenges

A premature or preterm baby is born before 37 complete weeks of pregnancy. Generally, the earlier a baby is born, the higher the risk of complications.

At first, your premature baby might have little body fat and need help maintaining body heat. He or she might cry only softly and have trouble breathing. Feeding your preemie might be a challenge. Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), low blood sugar, and lack of red blood cells to carry oxygen to your baby's tissues (anemia) are possible. More-serious concerns might include infection, episodes of stopped breathing (apnea) and bleeding into the brain. Some preemies have impaired hearing or vision.

Others experience developmental delays, learning disabilities, motor deficits, or behavioral, psychological or chronic health problems. Many, however, catch up and experience normal healthy development.

Taking care of your preemie

Your preemie's special needs call for special care, probably in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). In some cases, a premature baby needs to be transported to a hospital that can provide specialized care. The medical team caring for your baby will do everything they can to help your baby thrive. Your role as a parent is essential, too.

  • Find out about your preemie's condition. Uncertainty can be frightening — as can the monitors, respirators and other types of equipment in the NICU. Write down your questions and seek answers when you're ready. Read material provided by the hospital, or do your own research. The more you know, the better you'll be able to handle the situation.
  • Share your observations and concerns. If you notice changes in your preemie's condition, tell your baby's medical team right away.
  • Establish your milk supply. Breast milk contains proteins that help fight infection and promote growth. Although your preemie might not be able to feed from your breast or a bottle at first, breast milk can be given in other ways — or frozen for later use. Begin pumping as soon after birth as possible. Aim to pump at least six to eight times a day, round-the-clock. Also, ask your baby's doctor about your baby's need for supplementation — either in the form of breast milk fortifiers or preterm infant formula.
  • Spend time with your baby. Speak to your baby in loving tones and touch him or her often. Reading to your baby can help you feel closer to him or her. When your baby is ready, cradle him or her in your arms. Hold your baby under your robe or shirt to allow skin-to-skin contact. Learn to feed, change and soothe your preemie. If you're concerned about interfering with intravenous tubes or monitor wiring, ask your baby's medical team for help. Consider personalizing your baby's bed with a special blanket or family pictures.
Aug. 30, 2014 See more In-depth