Premature baby development -- what's the difference?

by Julie Snyder Premature baby development

Was your baby born early?

It's no surprise you're wondering about your baby's development.

Preemie parents often feel anxious and overwhelmed when their child doesn't develop at the same physical age as their peers.

Every baby reaches the developmental milestones at their own pace.

Premature babies hit their developmental milestones at a different rate than full-term newborns. 

As the months pass, the differences between your preemie and your friend's baby full-term usually become immeasurable.

Premature baby development -- the differences

Up to size

Preemies may be tiny, but don't worry about your little one's size. Most preemies catch up to their peers in size by 12 months and continue to grow at a similar rate. Premature babies can lag behind infants of the same age, but will catch up within the first to second year of life.

"Corrected" age

Babies born close to their due date sit without support around 4 to 7 months. In comparison, a baby born 10 weeks early, at 30 weeks, will sit between 6 and 10 months of age. Most full-term babies crawl around 8 or 9 months. A baby born born 10 weeks early may not begin crawling until 11 or 12 months.

To estimate when your baby will hit his or her developmental milestones, you can calculate your premature baby's "adjusted age," a guideline to tabulate progress.

• Take your infant's chronological age -- how many weeks since birth

• Subtract the number of weeks that your baby was premature.

Most preemies take between 24 and 36 months to catch up to their peers born on schedule.

You and your healthcare team keeps tabs

Your pediatrician pays special attention to your baby's reflexes, muscle tone, motor skills, behavior, sensory responses, and speech to determine if your preemie is developing on schedule. If not, your baby may work with a developmental specialist who can provide interventions that help prevent long-term disabilities.

The most severe diagnoses are usually evident by ages 2 to 4. Less obvious ones, including learning and behavior problems, mild visual and hearing problems aren't always diagnosed until age 8 to 11 or even later. If you suspect a problem, talk with your team.

Playing with your preemie

At birth until your baby's expected delivery date: See if your NICU offers developmental care or practice kangaroo care. Some research indicates these techniques improve a preemie's medical and long-term outcome.

0 to 1 month: Spend time singing and talking with your baby, face-to-face. Show your baby bright object and hang mobiles above the crib. Begin tummy time. Watch your baby's cues for overstimulation and stop playtime.

2 months: Talk, smile and socialize with your baby. Continue tummy time. Use interesting object or sounds and try to get your preemie to follow object from left to right and up and down. Encourage grasping and touching a variety of textures.

3 months: Support your baby in a sitting position and offer toys to reach for. Help them grasp or shake rattles. During tummy time, place bright toys just out of reach so your baby can work at getting them.

4 months: Talk with your baby. Does your little one join the conversation? Put toys just out of reach to encourage rolling from side to side. Attract your baby's attention with a rattle or bell.

6 months: Continue talking, singing, smiling and interacting with your baby. During tummy time, help your baby change position from front to back. Put toys just out of reach to the side to encourage rolling over.

✓ Be your baby's advocate -- research and ask questions

✓ Find medical setting where your concerns are addressed

✓ Network with other parents of preemies

✓ Trust your instincts

Are you the parent of a preemie? What works best for you?

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.