Caring For a Preemie: Here Is What Parents Need To Know

Caring for a preemie is no easy walk for parents whose babies are born too soon. Research shows that premature births occur in approximately 10 to 12% of pregnancies. Additionally, more than 50% of pregnancies carrying multiples, that is twins, triplets or more result in a preterm birth. These statistics make it important for parents to know what to expect when it comes to caring for a premature baby, or preemie as they are fondly referred to as.

The term preterm is used to describe births that occur before the 37th week of pregnancy. At 37 weeks, a pregnancy is considered full-term, and babies born before this gestational age are known as preemies. Owing to the numerous medical challenges that preemies face, it is advisable that preterm deliveries are only done when medically indicated.

Read More: Preterm births – What are the risk factors and symptoms?

Physical characteristics that preemies have

Full-term babies typically weigh between 2.5 and 4.5 kilograms. Preemies on the other hand, may weigh 2.3 kilograms or even less. In fact, the tiniest baby to go on record is Baby Saybie who, born at 23 weeks, weighed just 245 grams. Thanks to advancements in medicine and technology, Baby Saybie and many other preemies have a chance at life.

Even with medical advances, nothing prepares a parent for a premature birth. Depending on the age at which the baby is born, there are characteristic features that preemies will usually show. These include:

  • Very small baby, usually weighing less than 2.5kilograms.
  • A large head, usually disproportionate to the rest of the body.
  • Preemies have very little body fat. As a result of this, their skin seems transparent, often allowing visibility of the blood vessels beneath.
  • The lack of fat also means that preemies get very cold even at normal room temperature. This is why, immediately after birth, they are placed in an incubator to help regulate their body temperature. For babies who do not have serious medical challenges, Kangaroo Mother Care is also recommended.

Kangaroo Mother Care for Preemies

Kangaroo Mother Care is a simple, safe and effective technique of caring for newborns (both preemies and full-term). This technique is a key part of caring for a preemie. It involves placing them on their mother’s chest in order to keep the baby warm, allow for breastfeeding, bonding and protection. It is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for its immense benefits, especially for babies born prematurely. Read more about kangaroo care by clicking the link below:

Read More: Kangaroo Mother Care

The different ways in which preemies may act

In addition to the physical appearance, preemies also act differently when compared to full-term babies. These may include the following ways:

  • Preemies usually have a weak and soft cry. This is often accompanied by trouble breathing, something that is attributed to their underdeveloped respiratory system. Medically, these can lead to serious health issues because the baby’s organs do not get adequate oxygen, this is why preemies are often attached to monitors and medical equipment to track their breathing and heart rate.
  • Many preemies also experience apnea, a respiratory problem that is characterized by pauses in breathing. This typically improves as they grow, but some preemies may need apnea monitors.
  • Premature babies also have feeding challenges attributed to problems in coordinating sucking, swallowing and breathing. It is for this reason that they may need to be fed using a nasogastric tube, cup or even spoon.

Read More: Prematurity Awareness Month

Caring for a Preemie – Helpful tips for preemie parents:

In addition to all the worry that getting a premature baby brings, parents also often grapple with the reality of missing many ‘firsts’ – the first breastfeeding session right after birth and holding or bonding with the baby. This happens because, depending on the medical situation, preemie parents may not be able to hold or even touch their babies. There are a number of things that parents can do to be able to cope. These include:

  • Spending as much time as possible with the baby, as far as the baby’s and mom’s condition allows. This helps to create a bond with the baby. In some cases, it may not be possible to hold the baby. Even then, preemie parents may be allowed to touch the baby as often as possible. Most neonatal units allow the parents to practise Kangaroo Mother Care as soon as the babies are off support machines.
  • As soon as is medically possible, premature babies can also begin breastfeeding. This is an integral part of Kangaroo Mother Care, aptly referred to as Kangaroo Nutrition. In cases where breastfeeding is not possible, mothers may express breast milk which is then given by bottle or tube.
  • Preemie parents may sometimes be discharged earlier than their precious babies. This can be incredibly difficult to deal with, but it helps to remember that your baby is well taken care of at the hospital. Parents can usually visit as many times as possible. On the flip side, the time away from hospital can be spent getting some much-needed rest and readying the rest of the family for the baby’s arrival.
  • It helps to limit the number of visitors coming to see the baby, simply because the baby’s immune system is still weak. At the onset, visits outside of the home may be limited to hospital visits only. As the baby grows and their immune system matures, visitors will be able to see the baby – until then, keep a minimum number of people around the baby.
  • Remember to keep the baby warm, both through Kangaroo Mother Care as well as through layering. Layering is all about dressing baby in layers of clothes – say a vest, romper, sweater and shawl, depending on how cold or hot the environment is. This makes it easy to add or remove clothing items.
  • When it comes to sleeping, remember to place baby on his back, unless your doctor says otherwise. Do not use heavy bedding as this could easily suffocate the baby. Instead, place lightweight blankets and always make sure it is tucked in firmly. This is recommended to prevent SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) or cot death. Read more about SIDS here.

Additional Resources

For preemie parents in Kenya, the Preemie Love Foundation offers support and resources to help in caring for a preemie, as well as their families.

Featured Image