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Why premature birth happens

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Although most babies are born full term and free of medical problems, some are born too early. A premature (preterm) birth — a birth that occurs before 37 weeks of pregnancy — gives a baby less time to develop and mature in the womb.

As a result, premature babies may need specialized treatment in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Sometimes, even after a premature baby leaves the hospital, he or she may continue to need medical care.

Many factors can increase the risk of premature birth. Being pregnant with twins, triplets or another multiple is one cause. Chronic conditions experienced by a pregnant mother, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart and kidney disease, also can lead to premature birth. However, a specific cause is often unclear. And a premature birth can happen to anyone, including women who have no risk factors.

As the parent of a premature newborn, you might feel that you did something to cause the preterm birth or that you could have done more to prevent it. Mothers especially might think about how they might have changed the outcome by making different decisions during pregnancy.

Try to let go of any feelings of guilt about your baby’s premature birth by talking about them with your baby’s medical providers and your partner, who might be able to provide comfort. Focus your energy on caring for and getting to know your child.

It’s estimated that premature births occur in about 10% of pregnancies in the United States and that nearly 60% of multiple deliveries result in premature births. While all babies born before 37 weeks’ gestation are considered preterm, there are a few specific types of preterm birth, including:

  • Late preterm. A baby who is born at 34 through 36 weeks of pregnancy
  • Moderate preterm. A baby who is born between 32 and 34 weeks of pregnancy
  • Very preterm. A baby who is born between 28 and 32 weeks of pregnancy
  • Extremely preterm. A baby who is born at less than 28 weeks of pregnancy
  • Low birth weight. A baby who is born weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces
  • Very low birth weight. A baby who is born weighing less than 3 pounds, 5 ounces
  • Extremely low birth weight. A baby who is born weighing less than 2 pounds, 3 ounces

If your baby was born prematurely, the marvel of birth might be overshadowed by concern about his or her health and the possible long-term effects. It can be a very stressful time as you learn to manage expectations, cope with an unexpected reality and find time to be with your baby. But there’s much you can do to take care of your premature baby — and yourself — as you look toward the future.

Dr. Klaas and Dr. Cook are co-editors of  Mayo Clinic Guide to Your Baby’s First Years.

Walter J. Cook, M.D.

Dr. Cook is a specialist in general pediatric care within the Department of Pediatrics, Mayo Clinic Rochester, Minn., and an assistant professor at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science. A father of three, including twins, he has cared for thousands of babies in more than 25 years of pediatric practice.

Kelsey M. Klaas, M.D

Dr. Klaas is a pediatrician in the Division of General Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center in Rochester, Minn. She is the mother of two children who brings both a medical and new parent perspective to her practice and writing.

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Why premature birth happens

Although most babies are born full term and free of medical problems, some are born too early. A premature (preterm) birth — a birth that

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