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Understanding your premature baby

Having a preemie can be challenging, but understanding your little one’s developmental needs can help you cope.

What do physicist Albert Einstein, musician Stevie Wonder and Olympic gold medalist Wayde van Niekerk have in common? While it’s a given that each has made noteworthy contributions to the world, each was also born prematurely yet grew up to live a healthy, productive life. Prematurity is neither a death sentence nor a lifetime of disability, and due to medical advances and awareness campaigns, babies’ lives can be saved.

But a baby’s survival also depends on the infant’s gestational age (generally around a minimum of 24 weeks), explains Dr Natasha Padayachee-Govender, a paediatrician at Life Fourways Hospital in Johannesburg.  

Health problems arising from premature birth

‘When they are born, preemies’ organs haven’t fully developed. Their health also depends on the gestational age and several other factors, such as the mother’s co-morbidities, which could include gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia,’ says Dr Izanie Weideman, a paediatrician at Life Wilgeheuwel Hospital in Johannesburg. ‘Besides common problems with breathing, feeding, the digestive system, vision and hearing, other disabilities are sometimes only recognised at school-going age. These could include learning difficulties, poor communication and coordination, and behavioural problems. Early identification and intervention in these cases are crucial.’

Supporting your baby’s development in hospital

Your primary source of information and guidance will be your paediatrician and the nursing staff. ‘I often counsel parents prior to delivery about the need for transfer to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I explain the process and that premature babies require intensive care with specially trained neonatal staff,’ says Dr Padayachee-Govender.

In the NICU, every health aspect of the premature infant is extensively monitored. ‘However, the development of premature babies is dependent on environmental factors too. Parents have a significant role to play,’ says Dr Weideman. Here’s how you can play a part in your preemie’s development:

  • During visits to the NICU, learn and understand your infant’s body language, how to comfort and feed your baby, and witness how your baby is growing and developing.
  • Talk to your baby. Recent studies have shown that exposure to maternal or parental voices has beneficial effects on the physiological and behavioural state of preterm infants.
  • Other studies have shown that skin-to-skin contact during hospitalisation helps to establish a good parent-infant relationship and helps the baby thrive.
  • Be involved in baby care, including nappy changes and routines, whenever possible.
  • Get to know the staff in the NICU and communicate regularly with your paediatrician.
  • Don’t be afraid to raise concerns you may have about your baby’s health.

Your baby’s development at home

By the time you take your baby home, you should be more comfortable feeding, changing, bathing and giving medication, as well as performing CPR, if necessary. However, taking a preterm baby home for the first time can still be daunting. Dr Weideman advises: ‘You are not embarking on this journey alone. Your paediatrician and the staff are still there to help you every step of the way. The support of family and friends, and even support groups, can also be invaluable.’

Tips from the experts

  • Place different colours, patterns and shiny objects near the crib or car seat for visual stimulation. From 2 to 3 months* (corrected age) they should be able to follow a moving object.
  • Put baby to sleep on his or her back during the first year to prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • At around three months* (corrected age), make sure your baby is able to hear by observing if there is a startle reflex when a loud sound is made or if they are listening when talked to.
  • Regularly take baby to your paediatrician for check-ups – up to at least two years – for close evaluation of development. Premature babies are expected to catch up with their peers at two years.

*Premature babies are evaluated according to their ‘corrected’ age, which is their chronological age minus the difference between the birth date and the due date.

Find out more about Life Healthcare’s maternity services.

The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a healthcare professional. E&OE. Life Healthcare Group Ltd does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by the reader as a result of the information provided.