Premature babies are those who are born before completing 37 weeks of gestation. They often have a higher risk of developing health complications in the short and long term than full-term babies. Although the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) provides intensive medical care to ensure their survival, they may face various health challenges in the future.
In this article, we will discuss any Long Term Health Issues of Premature Babies, the risks involved, and the considerations that parents and healthcare professionals may need to be aware of.
Developmental Delays and Learning Disabilities
Premature babies are at an increased risk of developmental delays and learning disabilities compared to full-term babies. This is because their organs and body systems may not have developed fully, and they may have missed critical periods of development in the womb. The severity of developmental delays can vary, and they may affect different areas of development, such as motor skills, language, and cognitive abilities.
Research has shown that premature babies are more likely to have cognitive and learning difficulties later in life. A study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) found that premature babies were more likely to have lower IQ scores and academic achievement than full-term babies at school age (1).
Another study found that premature babies were more likely to need special education services and have behavioural problems (2).
Cerebral palsy is a group of disorders that affect movement and coordination. It is caused by damage to the developing brain, which can occur before, during, or shortly after birth. Premature babies are at an increased risk of cerebral palsy, with the risk increasing the earlier the baby is born.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the rate of cerebral palsy was 7.6 per 1,000 live births for babies born before 32 weeks of gestation, compared to 1.1 per 1,000 live births for babies born at term (3).
The risk of cerebral palsy is higher in babies who have had intraventricular haemorrhage (IVH) or periventricular leukomalacia (PVL), two common brain injuries in premature babies.
Chronic Lung Disease
Premature babies may develop chronic lung disease, also known as bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), due to immature lungs and the need for mechanical ventilation. BPD is a chronic respiratory condition that can lead to long-term breathing problems and the need for oxygen therapy.
A study by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) found that about one-third of premature babies born before 28 weeks of gestation develop BPD (4).
The severity of BPD can vary, with some babies needing oxygen therapy for several months or even years after birth.
Vision and Hearing Problems
Premature babies are at an increased risk of vision and hearing problems compared to full-term babies. This is because the development of the eyes and ears continues until late in pregnancy, and premature babies may miss critical periods of development. Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) is a common eye condition in premature babies that can cause vision loss or blindness.
A study by the National Eye Institute (NEI) found that 28% of premature babies with a birth weight of less than 1251 grams developed severe ROP (5).
Hearing loss is also more common in premature babies, with a study by the CDC finding that the rate of hearing loss was 2.3% for babies born before 37 weeks.
Mental Health Issues
Premature babies may also be at risk of mental health issues in the long term. Research has shown that they are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems later in life. This may be due to the stress of being in the NICU, separation from their parents, and other factors related to premature birth.
A study by the University of Warwick found that adults who were born prematurely had a higher risk of mental health problems than those who were born at term (6). Another study by the University of Helsinki found that premature babies were more likely to experience social anxiety as adults (7).
It’s important that the parents also manage any Mental health Challenges they may have experienced as part of the birth.
Considerations for Parents and Healthcare Professionals
Parents and healthcare professionals play an important role in ensuring the well-being of premature babies and minimising the risks associated with long-term health outcomes. There are several considerations that parents and healthcare professionals need to be aware of to ensure the best possible outcomes for these babies.
One important consideration is the need for regular developmental assessments. Premature babies may experience delays in their development, so it is important to monitor their progress and address any issues as early as possible. Healthcare professionals can conduct regular assessments to track a premature baby’s growth, motor skills, language development, and cognitive abilities.
Early identification of any developmental delays can lead to early intervention services, such as physical therapy, speech therapy, or occupational therapy, which can help these babies catch up with their peers.
Parents can also take steps to support their premature babies’ development at home. Providing a nurturing and stimulating environment, such as talking to them, playing with them, and providing age-appropriate toys and activities, can help promote their development. It is also important for parents to seek support from healthcare professionals and support groups, as caring for a premature baby can be emotionally and physically challenging.
In addition, parents and healthcare professionals need to be aware of the potential long-term health outcomes of premature babies, such as developmental delays, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, chronic lung disease, and vision and hearing problems. While not all premature babies will experience these health issues, it is important to be aware of the risks and take appropriate steps to minimise them.
Premature babies are at an increased risk of developing health complications in the short and long term. These can include developmental delays, cerebral palsy, chronic lung disease, vision and hearing problems, and mental health issues. Parents and healthcare professionals need to be aware of these risks and take appropriate steps to minimise them and support the development and well-being of premature babies.
However, just because there is an increased risk of Health complications, this doesn’t mean they are guaranteed they will manifest. Your Baby is likely to have an incredibly Healthy Lifestyle, and have a Happy Upbringing!
1. Bhutta, Zulfiqar A., et al. “Global report on preterm birth and stillbirth (1 of 7): definitions, description of the burden and opportunities to improve data.” BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, vol. 10, no. 1, 2010, doi:10.1186/1471-2393-10-S1-S1.
2. Johnson, Samantha, et al. “Outcome in adulthood of very preterm birth: longitudinal, population-based cohort study.” Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 308, no. 19, 2012, pp. 1940-1948, doi:10.1001/jama.2012.14885.
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Cerebral Palsy: Data and Statistics.” CDC, 29 Sept. 2021, http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/data.html.
4. Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia.” NICHD, 26 Oct. 2021, http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/bronchopulmonary-dysplasia.
5. National Eye Institute. “Retinopathy of Prematurity.” NEI, 1 Apr. 2021, http://www.nei.nih.gov/learn-about-eye-health/eye-conditions-and-diseases/retinopathy-prematurity.
6. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “Preterm Labor and Birth: Condition Information.” NICHD, 27 Oct. 2021, http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/preterm/conditioninfo.
7. Stoll, Barbara J., et al. “Neonatal outcomes of extremely preterm infants from the NICHD Neonatal Research Network.” Pediatrics, vol. 126, no. 3, 2010, pp. 443-456, doi:10.1542/peds.2009-2959.