What is premature birth and how common is it?
One in eight babies in the UK (80,000 each year) needs special care after they are born, the majority because they are premature. A baby is premature when it is born before 37 weeks’ gestation. 35-37 weeks is moderately premature, 29-34 weeks is very premature and before 29 weeks is extremely premature.
Each category is progressively less common and it is extremely rare for babies to be born before 28 weeks. However, with advances in the medical care babies are receiving, as well as improved knowledge of how to care for them, more and more babies born at 25, 24 and even 23 weeks’ gestation are surviving and going on to lead happy, healthy lives.
Premature births are on the increase, and around one third of them happen for no known medical reason.
One common cause is the condition pre-eclampsia, which causes dangerously high blood pressure in the mother and often results in the baby being delivered early. Other causes include infections, multiple births (twins and triplets) and intrauterine growth restriction, where the baby doesn’t grow as quickly as it should.
Many premature babies will only need to spend a short spell in special care, usually to help them breathe and give them time for their lungs to develop properly before they go home. Others may need to spend longer and the smallest and sickest babies will usually need to spend some time in intensive care.
I have been told I may give birth prematurely. What do I need to know?
Having a premature baby can be an extremely traumatic and stressful time for parents, and the experience can be a world away from the birth they expected.
There are a few things that are useful to know just in case, to make the situation easier to cope with.
If your baby needs urgent special care, they may be taken to the neonatal ward very quickly after birth, which means you may not get to see him or her straight away. This can be very distressing but it is important to remember it is essential that your baby gets the necessary care as soon as possible.
Seeing your baby for the first time may also be alarming, as there may be a lot of equipment surrounding the incubator. The staff on the unit should be able to explain what all of the equipment is for. He or she may also be alarmingly small, and not how you imagined they would look at birth.
Don’t be afraid to ask about touching and holding your baby, as this might be possible earlier than you think, and has proven physical and emotional benefits for both you and your baby.
And what about my maternity leave?
As with any new mother, your maternity leave will start as soon as your baby is born. This can be very difficult, as much of it might be spent visiting your baby in hospital. If your baby needs a long spell of care, then you may not get much time at home with them before you are required to go back to work. It is important to talk to your employer about any possible flexibility. For example, they may be able to offer a period of parental or carer’s leave (this may also be an option for your partner).
There may also be an extra strain on your finances, especially if you are travelling every day to a hospital far away. The BLISS leaflet Financial Advice for Families provides information and advice on how parents of premature or sick babies can take control of their finances.