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Published on September 17, 2014

When Baby Arrives Too Early, Specialized Care Provides a Bridge to Health

SIOUX FALLS (Sept. 1, 2014) – A premature delivery is never in the plans for expectant parents. Yet if it happens, keep in mind that most premature infants soon grow into healthy babies.

About one in every eight babies in the United States, or approximately 12 percent, are born premature, which is defined as before 37 weeks, or three weeks before the normal gestation of 40 weeks.

The first cure is prevention. Seek out good prenatal care. Maintain good overall health during pregnancy. Don’t use alcohol, smoke or use other substances or medications not approved by your provider.

“Yet for half of moms who go into premature labor, there isn’t a reason. Many have no other health problems,” said Justin Sharp, MD, Neonatologist at Avera Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls.

The amount of care a premature baby needs depends greatly on how early he or she arrives. Babies’ lungs must be developed enough to be able to breathe well, and lung function is the top issue in prematurity. Plus, premature babies might have to overcome other issues, such as bleeding in the brain, that might impact quality of life in future years.

Avera Children’s has a policy of placing any infant born before 35 weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), even if that baby is doing well. “The best-case scenario is that the baby would stay in the NICU for 48 hours, and then be released from the hospital to go home,” Dr. Sharp said.

The NICU is a specialized unit with a specialized team to care for premature babies, and newborns with other complications or health issues.

“It’s a bridge of care until the baby reaches the age of maturity,” Dr. Sharp said. Along with an expert team, the NICU has specialized equipment, such as incubators that decrease noise and heat loss, and prevent against infections. “There is no replacement for a mother’s womb, but this is our best attempt to simulate that perfect environment for a baby’s development.”

NICU stays vary in length. Just as all individuals are different, some babies are “fighters” that hold their own earlier than expected. A good rule of thumb is that a premature baby will be in the NICU until around the original due date.

Parents are encouraged to stay as involved as possible in their baby’s care – holding, feeding and diapering the baby when they can. “Kangaroo Care” is an evidence-based practice that involves holding the baby on either the mother’s or father’s bare chest, providing warmth and comfort through skin-to-skin contact.

Breastfeeding is recommended for all newborns. Yet it’s so beneficial for premature infants that neonatologists “prescribe” it, just like they would medicine. If moms can’t pump their own breast milk, donor breast milk is available.

“Breast milk boosts the baby’s immunity, protects the baby against infections and digestive problems, and has components that facilitate growth,” Dr. Sharp said. “Studies also show that breastfeeding can improve intellectual ability as the child grows.”

When the time comes near for baby to go home, he or she often “rooms in” with parents in the hospital setting, so parents can practice being “on their own” in a safe environment. The new parents have had a whole team caring for their baby, and all of the sudden, it’s up to them. “We don’t send babies home until we believe that the parents can care for them. Yet sometimes the parents still need to gain confidence and realize that everything will be OK,” Dr. Sharp said.  A premature baby might go home with specialized equipment, such as oxygen or a breathing monitor.

“Having a premature baby is a journey that can be like a roller coaster, with ups and downs. Our job is to help parents keep their eyes on the goal. There will be steps forward and steps back, but there’s also a lot of hope. Here in the United States, we’ve learned a lot about how to care for premature babies, and the vast majority have good outcomes.”

To learn more about pregnancy, childbirth and delivery, go to

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