How a Premature Baby Differs From a Full-Term Baby

Many premature infants grow up to be healthy children and adults, but there are several things that make them different from full-term babies. Learn more below:

About 1 in 10 babies born in the U.S. are born prematurely (before 37 weeks) each year. And, while many premature infants grow up to be completely healthy children and adults, there are several things that make them different than their full-term counterparts.

What Are the Differences Between a Premature Baby and a Full-Term Baby?

A premature baby's appearance and behavior will differ from that of a full-term baby. Because of the shorter gestation period, a preemie will not have as much body fat as a full-term baby. Their skin color might appear red, and they'll have more body hair (known as lanugo) too. Also, they may appear jaundiced and have trouble suckling and swallowing. To help your baby grow and gain strength, it's important to ensure they receive the special care they need. 

How Long Do Preemies Stay in the NICU?

While a full-term baby spends a little time in the hospital before going home with their family, when you have an early-term baby – before 37 weeks – they’ll often spend weeks or even months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) surrounded by medical staff and equipment before coming home. This can be incredibly stressful for both parents and babies. During this time, it’s important for you to talk or read to them, hold them when possible, initiate breastfeeding, and help them adjust to life outside of your body.

Many NICUs will have you hold your baby skin-to-skin – sometimes called kangaroo care – to help improve your baby’s ability to regulate and stabilize their body temperature, heart rate, breathing, and more.

Is It Difficult to Breastfeed a Preemie?

Breastfeeding your preemie is one thing you can do to make sure your baby has the best start possible. In fact, many NICU professionals and healthcare providers view breast milk as an essential part of each preemie’s treatment plan because of the benefits and protective properties it provides.

However, when you have a premature baby, your breastfeeding journey may turn out a little different than what you had planned. You will likely be exclusively pumping for at least the first part of your little one’s life. Many premature babies are physically unable to feed at the breast – instead they must rely on receiving your pumped milk via a feeding tube in the NICU.

Once you bring your baby home, their sucking ability may not be 100% developed, so you may still need to pump. While it can be stressful, know that providing your breast milk is one of the most important things you can do to help your preemie.

How Much Milk Should I Be Producing to Feed My Premature Baby?

Because your breast milk is literally "liquid gold" that's going to help your baby grow and gain strength, it's important to pump as often as a full-term baby would breastfeed each day - at least 8 - 10 times a day. In doing so, you'll be stimulating prolactin which tells your body to make more milk. This way, you'll also be able to start building a plentiful milk supply while working toward increasing your breast milk volume. 

What is an Adjusted Age for an Early Term Baby?

When your baby is born prematurely, your healthcare provider will often give them an “adjusted age” to determine whether they’re developing within a normal range for their age. This adjusted age helps level the playing field for preemies by taking into account just how early they were born.

To find your baby’s adjusted age, count the number of weeks between the birth date and the due date, then subtract that amount of time from the current age. Pediatricians typically use this adjusted age until your baby is 2 or 3 years old, when preemies generally catch up to their peers.

When Can You Expect a Preemie to Reach Milestones?

Every baby reaches milestones at different times. However, getting to those premature baby milestones (sitting up, crawling, talking, and walking) will usually take place at a slower pace. You can use your baby’s adjusted age to gauge when they may reach these early milestones. For example, while most full-term babies will sit up between 4 and 7 months, a baby born two months early can be expected to do this between 6 and 9 months. Remember, milestones are just guidelines. If you’re worried about your baby’s development, it’s important to talk with your pediatrician to monitor your little one's progress. 

Having a premature infant brings more than its share of worries and challenges, but with the help of advanced medical technology and the dedicated healthcare professionals in the NICU, it’s more possible than ever for even the tiniest babies to grow up and lead long, normal, healthy lives. In a few years, you might be amazed to think that your child was ever so small.

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