How premature birth affects you and your baby

Premature birth can have short-term and long-term effects on you and your baby.

In general, the more premature a baby is, the greater the chance they will have health problems.

Premature babies often need to be cared for in a neonatal intensive care unit until they're strong enough to cope. Babies born before 24 weeks are less likely to survive.

How premature birth affects your baby

If your baby is born earlier than expected, your healthcare team will talk to you about risks to your baby and any treatments that can help. The risks to your baby depend on how early they are born.

Neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)

Depending on how early your baby arrives, your baby may need to be cared for in a NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) or a SCBU (special care baby unit).

Your baby may need to be transferred to a different hospital with an NICU if there was no time to transfer before labour.

Read more about neonatal intensive care and special care baby units

What your premature baby may look like

Your baby may be very small, depending on how early they were born.

Their skin may be translucent (see-through), and lack any fatty tissue under it. Their body may be covered with a fine, downy hair known as lanugo.

They may not be able to open their eyes yet, or cry.

Problems your premature baby may have

Babies born earlier than expected may have problems with:

  • breathing – they may need a tube placed into their airways to give them oxygen, especially if your baby was born at 27 weeks or earlier
  • keeping warm – they may need to be cared for in a special type of cot known as an incubator
  • feeding – your baby’s suck reflex may not have developed yet and they may need to be fed through a tube into their tummy
  • infection – they may need very close monitoring and to take antibiotics for a time

Births before 24 weeks of pregnancy

Some babies are born too early in pregnancy to survive following birth.

Babies born before 22 weeks are so small that their lungs and other organs are not developed enough to live for more than a few minutes after they are born.

Some of these tiny babies die before or during birth. Some babies may show signs of life for a short time after birth.

This also applies to some babies born at 22 or 23 weeks of pregnancy. Survival may be possible for some babies born this early, but that is not always the case.

If a baby is not developed enough to live a healthly life, they will need to go into intensive care in order to survive.

Parents and doctors can decide that it may be better to offer the baby comfort care instead and allow the baby to die. The doctors can then make the baby comfortable so they do not feel pain. The parents can hold their baby and spend time with them.

Babies who survive birth may show signs of life such as:

  • a clearly visible heartbeat
  • breathing or sustained gasps
  • movement of their limbs

The length of time a baby will show these signs is hard to predict. It may be only a few minutes but can be up to a few hours.

Not all movements in babies born this early are signs of life. Some babies who die shortly before birth may show brief reflex movements (for example, flickering movements of their chest wall). This can last less than a minute.

When stillbirth happens

Get bereavement support from Pregnancy and Infant Loss Ireland

Registration of birth, death and stillbirth - citizensinformation.ie

How premature birth affects parents

Having a baby early can be a shock to you and your partner and family. You may feel unprepared and anxious about your baby’s arrival. You'll also be trying to recover from giving birth.

Your obstetricians, midwives and paediatricians will give you information. Keep a list of questions that you want to ask when you see them.

Helping your premature baby

You'll be shown how to look after your baby. Spend as much time with your baby as you can. Try to rest and eat healthily.

Breastfeeding is very helpful for your baby. Breast milk is the best source of nourishment and premature babies can find other milk hard to digest.

One of the midwives or lactation consultants in the hospital will be able to show you how to express breast milk for your baby.

Effect on future pregnancies

If you've been through premature labour before, there's a greater chance you'll have premature labour in future. But generally you're still more likely to have a baby at term than prematurely.

If you get pregnant again you'll need to see an obstetrician. Seeing them as early as possible during the pregnancy is important so you can discuss any extra treatment or monitoring that you may need.

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.

Page last reviewed: 4 December 2021
Next review due: 4 December 2024