Friday, March 5, 2010

Early arrival

The premature birth of a baby sometimes brings more heartache than joy

When my daughter was born two weeks before her due date I thought: “Great … there go my last moments of rest and relaxation.”
I was excited about meeting my baby, but I was put out by the fact that I had made plans for those two weeks involving massages, pedicures and cooking meals to freeze for later.
Instead I spent the early stages of labour mopping the floors and packing my bag to take to hospital.
For some reason I felt the house needed to be spotless before the baby arrived, as if this little mini-me would be horrified at the sight of a speck of dust.
The real reason, of course, was so I would not have to lift a finger to do housework when I came home from hospital a few days later. The “nesting” instinct is really just a term for mothers who plan ahead.
So my final trimester was cut a wee bit short, but I was prepared for the birth and my husband and I were both ready to meet our baby.
Imagine then, if instead of being two weeks early, she arrived two months early.

A normal pregnancy lasts for about 40 weeks. A premature or preterm birth is when a baby is born earlier than 37 weeks of pregnancy.
It is unknown why many premature births occur, but there are a variety of risk factors that increase the chances of a baby being born too early.
Risks include: multiple births, previous premature births, a short period between pregnancies, smoking, chronic illness, recurring infection, abortion, history of premature births in the family, mother’s age (younger than 18 or older than 40), pre-eclampsia, uterine or cervical abnormalities, thrombophilia (clotting disorder), alcohol or drug abuse, and placental risks.
Pre-eclampsia is the development of elevated blood pressure and protein in the urine. This can lead to serious complications for the mother and fetus and the only known cure is delivery of the baby.
Just as there are many risks, there are also many factors that determine whether a premature baby survives.
These include:
* The baby’s gestational age (number of completed weeks of pregnancy at the time of birth)
* The baby’s weight
* The presence or absence of breathing problems
* The presence or absence of congenital abnormalities or malformations
* The presence or absence of other severe diseases, especially infection.
Gestational age is important because it determines if the baby’s organs, particularly the lungs, have developed enough to allow the baby to live within the limits of our current technology.
Because of this, many premature babies who do survive have additional health complications in the future. These include respiratory problems, pneumonia, infection, hernia and sepsis.
The survival rate for a baby born at 23 weeks is less than 10 per cent, 24 weeks 50 per cent, and this gradually improves up to 30 weeks or longer at 98 per cent.
However statistics for a major disability among survivors is startling: 30 per cent of babies born at 23 weeks have a major disability, as do 20 per cent born at 24 weeks, and 10 per cent born at 28 weeks and older.
With these facts in mind, it must be incredibly heartbreaking and stressful for parents and families suddenly faced with a premature birth when they always expected to give birth at full term.
These families experience emotional trauma, grief and often ongoing health concerns for themselves and their children.
In most cases the mother is discharged from hospital while the baby stays for an extended period of time.
This creates a situation of isolation, sadness, guilt, anger, shock and anxiety.
The parents are overwhelmed with unfamiliar medical terms relating to their baby’s condition, a variety of specialist doctors, and a ward full of huge beeping machines attached to tiny, helpless babies.
Fortunately there are support groups and fantastic nursing staff who assist parents and families through this period in their young baby’s life.
If you – or someone you know – has a premature baby, there are two ports of call you should start with.
* The National Premmie Foundation is a non-profit group offering support and information for families, carers and health professionals.
Its main event is National Premmie Day on July 25, which celebrates the survival of premature babies around Australia, while remembering those who were too tiny to make it.
Visit or call 1300 PREMBABY/1300 773 622.
* Another organisation is the Queensland-based PIPA (Preterm Infants’ Parents’ Association) which offers practical and emotional support for parents and families whose babies are admitted to Special and Intensive Care Nurseries.
This group is run by parents of preterm babies, not medical staff, so families can get understanding, support, encouragement and friendship. Visit or phone Kim Rivers on 3216 5114.


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