Common Premature Birth Complications

Intraventricular hemorrhage (IVH) -- Babies born at less than 34 weeks have an increased risk of bleeding in their brain. This happens because immature blood vessels may not tolerate the changes in circulation that take place during labor. This can lead to future complications such as cerebal palsy, mental retardation and learning difficulties. Intracranial hemorrhage occurs in about 1/3 of babies born 24-26 weeks gestation. If pre term labor is identified and is inevitable, there are medications that can be given to the mother to help lessen the chances of severe intracranial hemorrhage in the newborn.

Inability to maintain body heat -- A premature baby is born with little body fat and immature skin which does not allow him or her to maintain body heat. Treatment involves warmers or incubators to help them keep warm.

Immature gastrointestinal and digestive system -- Premature newborns are born with gastrointestinal systems that are too immature to absorb nutrients safely. Therefore they receive their initial nutrients through intravenous (IV) feeding which is called Total Parenteral Nutrition (TPN). After a few days, newborns may be fed through a tube with breast milk or formula because the newborn may still not be mature enough to swallow or suck on their own.

Anemia -- This is a medical condition caused by abnormally low concentrations of red blood cells. Red blood cells are important because they carry a substance called hemoglobin, which carries oxygen. Most newborns should have levels higher than 15 grams. However, preemies are at a high risk of having low levels and are at risk for anemia. If the anemia is severe, treatment involves transfusion of red blood cells to the newborn.

Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA) -- This is a cardiac disorder that causes breathing difficulties after delivery due to an open blood vessel, called the ductus arteriosus. During fetal development the ductus arteriosis is open to allow blood to be diverted from the lungs into the aorta since the baby does not breathe until after delivery. A fetus makes a chemical compound called prostaglandin E which circulates his or her blood keeping the ductus arteriosus open. At a full term birth levels of prostaglandin E fall causing the ductus arteriosus to close, allowing a baby's lungs to receive the blood they need to function properly once they have entered the world. With pre term labor, the prostaglandin E may stay the same causing an open ductus arteriosus which causes breathing complications. Treatment involves a medication that stops or slows the production of prostaglandin E.

Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) -- This is a potentially blinding eye disorder. It affects most preemies between 24-26 weeks gestation and rarely does it affect preemies beyond 33-34 weeks gestation. There are many different stages and treatment depends on severity and may include laser surgery or cryosurgery.

Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC) -- This condition occurs when a portion of the newborn's intestine develops poor blood flow that can lead to infection in the bowel wall. Treatment includes intravenous feeding and antibiotics. Only in severe cases is an operation necessary.

Sepsis -- This is a medical condition in which bacteria enters the blood stream. Sepsis often brings infection to the lungs and therefore can lead to pneumonia. Treatment involves antibiotics.

Reprinted with permission from American Pregnancy Association