In South Africa, this percentage is slightly higher than the global average, at around 15% of total births, which is approximately 84 000 premature births in South Africa each year.
A premature baby is defined as being born before 37 weeks, and early birth can be caused by a variety of factors such as carrying multiples, pre-existing medical conditions in the mother or other lifestyle factors like malnutrition.
Premature babies are at risk because the support and protection of the mother's womb are removed while the vital organs such as the lungs and brain are still developing.
Overall, a premature baby's survival rate depends on their gestational age and is typically less than 50% before they are 24 weeks old. Generally, the earlier a baby is born, the higher the risk of complications.
If you're an expectant parent, the thought of your baby being born prematurely can be very worrying, especially with varying health complications they may have and the fact that each baby will handle them differently. But there is some preparation you can do to help you cope if your baby arrives early.
Here are four important things you can do:
Know what to expect
If your baby is born in a hospital, they'll most likely be transferred to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in order to get the extra care they need. Most NICUs will let parents visit any time of day or night, although friends and extended family are usually excluded to reduce the risk of outside infection.
Premature babies are usually placed in incubators or infant warmers – small beds with heaters over them – until they can maintain their own body temperature.
Depending on how early they're born, they may be connected to various pieces of equipment to monitor their vital signs or help them breathe. This can all feel very overwhelming, so write down any questions you may have that you can ask the doctors and specialists you’re dealing with.
Express your breast milk
Did you know that for the first few weeks after a preemie baby is born, breast milk produced by the mother is slightly higher in protein and minerals and different types of fat that are more easily absorbed?
Many premature babies are unable to breastfeed or take a bottle when they're born, but you can still express your milk to be given to your baby via a feeding tube – or you can freeze it for later use. You can express either using your own pump, or with a hospital-grade pump that’s much more powerful and expresses faster.
If you're not breastfeeding, do your research into available options for specialised pre-term infant formula.
Engage in skin-to-skin care
Skin-to-skin care – also known as kangaroo care – is where the baby is dressed only in a nappy and then placed on the mother’s (or father’s) bare chest.
This kind of care can be very helpful in your baby's development while they’re in the NICU: a recent study by Monash University in Australia found that skin-to-skin care has significant benefits to a premature baby’s heart and brain function.
In general, skin-to-skin care can also help with the baby's temperature regulation, reduce stress, and help the parents bond with the baby as well as increase the mother's milk supply.
Take care of yourself
As hard as the wait can be until your baby is ready to go home, try to look after yourself as best you can while you’re in hospital – and ask others for help too. This can be as simple as having your favourite bath products or new slippers delivered to you, or going outside for a walk a few times a day.
If you can, lean on other parents whose babies are also in the NICU, or join an in-person (or online) preemie support group. If you're a member of a medical aid, see what benefits they offer to new parents.
Having a premature baby in hospital can be one of the most stressful times in your life – added to the fact that you're away from friends, family and perhaps your other children.
While many aspects of it may feel out of your control, things like expressing breastmilk, getting the information you need and giving yourself some level of self-care are things you can do, and can go a long way to helping you feel calmer and better able to deal with the weeks that follow your baby's arrival.
Submitted to Parent24 by Fedhealth.
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