4 Ways Preemies are Different

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

What is a Premature Baby?

About 1 in 10 babies born in the US 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.

Many Preemies Start Their Lives in the NICU

While a full-term baby spends a little time in the hospital before going home with mom and dad, when your baby is born preterm – 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.

Breastfeeding May Be More Complicated

...But it's incredibly important! 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 you 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.

Preemie Babies Have an Adjusted Age

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. This adjusted age is typically used by pediatricians until your baby reaches age 2 or 3, when preemies generally catch up to their peers.

Preemies Often Reach Milestones Later

Every baby reaches milestones at different times. However, babies who are born prematurely typically reach early milestones (sitting up, crawling, talking, and walking) at a slower pace. You can use your baby’s adjusted age to gauge when he or she 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 baby’s progress. 

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