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JAMA Patient Page
march 26, 2008

Premature Infants

JAMA. 2008;299(12):1500. doi:10.1001/jama.299.12.1500

During pregnancy, the infant grows in the mother's uterus (womb) usually for 38 to 40 weeks. When an infant is born prematurely (too early), the infant may require special medical care. The level of extra care needed often depends on how early the birth occurs. Premature (also called preterm) infants weigh much less than full-term infants because they have not had the full amount of time for growth inside the uterus.

Infants born very early in pregnancy are extremely small and fragile. They may weigh less than 2 pounds. They require specialized intensive care in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Doctors and nurses who work in NICUs have specialized training to care for premature infants and their problems. Health problems for premature infants may not end when they go home from the hospital. They may need special medical care as they grow older.

The March 26, 2008, issue of JAMA includes an article about the long-term effects of premature birth. This Patient Page is adapted from one published in the July 20, 2005, issue.

Early problems for premature infants

  • Inability to breathe or breathe regularly on their own because of underdeveloped lungs

  • Body temperature regulation (the infant cannot maintain his or her own body heat)

  • Feeding and growth problems because of an immature digestive system

  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin and possible brain damage due to buildup of bilirubin, a blood breakdown product)

  • Anemia (not enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to tissues)

  • Intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding into the brain)

Problems premature infants might face as they grow older

  • Apnea (episodes of stopping breathing), which may require special monitoring, even at home

  • Bronchopulmonary dysplasia, a chronic lung disease that may or may not improve as the child grows

  • Hearing or vision problems related to immature nerves or treatment side effects

  • Developmental delay and learning disabilities from brain damage related to immaturity

Because premature infants, especially extremely premature infants, can be very ill, decisions about treatments can be difficult for parents, doctors, and nurses. Medical research studies provide information about treatments and the likely course of an illness, but they cannot predict how each infant will recover from being born too early.

Regular prenatal (before birth) medical care, avoiding any exposure to tobacco smoke, avoiding alcohol and illegal substances, and controlling chronic medical problems are important during every pregnancy.

For more information

Inform yourself

To find this and previous JAMA Patient Pages, go to the Patient Page link on JAMA's Web site at http://www.jama.com. Many are available in English and Spanish.

Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Nemours Foundation (KidsHealth)

The JAMA Patient Page is a public service of JAMA. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your personal medical condition, JAMA suggests that you consult your physician. This page may be photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, call 203/259-8724.