New parents are rarely prepared to deal with the health problems of a new baby. You panic over every fever, cringe when they cough, and wring your hands in indecision when it comes to taking them to the hospital or simply giving them some baby aspirin. And while any newborn faces increased health risks in the first couple years of their lives as their little immune systems learn to protect their bodies, the risks for preemies, which have emerged from the shelter of the womb before fully developing, are even greater. In particular, there are several areas of concern that every parent should be aware of when it comes to monitoring the health of their preemie.
1. Apnea. This is the first and often most noticeable health problem affecting preemies when they come home from the hospital. The part of the brain that controls intrinsic breathing is not fully developed in many premature babies, causing them to stop breathing and their heart rate to slow, most often during sleep. This disturbance, while frightening, generally requires stimulation to get your baby breathing again (usually putting them in an upright position and patting the back, as in burping) and it can be easily detected using a monitoring system with an alarm. Most babies will outgrow this health problem over time, but in severe or prolonged cases, they may need medication.
2. Feeding. A lot of preemies are unable to feed directly (in the mouth) for awhile. As their digestive systems continue to develop, they must be fed slowly to reduce the risk of an intestinal infection called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). They will probably have to ingest nutrients from a tube that goes from the nose or mouth directly into the stomach. The best thing to feed them is usually breast milk because of the proteins it contains that help with growth and protect against infection, but fortified formula can also be used.
3. Infection. Infections of all types are common in preemies, but you may notice that they suffer from a lot of ear and sinus infections, in particular. This is largely due to the fact that these parts are underdeveloped and exposed. However, they may also be prone to any number of bacterial, fungal, and viral infections, which can be treated with antibiotics and other prescription medications.
4. Jaundice. Hyperbilirubinemia is caused by high levels of a compound called bilirubin that forms as a natural result of the breakdown of blood. It causes the skin of your infant to turn yellow, along with the whites of the eyes. This problem is easily treatable with exposure to special lights (or in severe cases, a blood transfusion), and it should be addressed immediately to avoid possible brain damage.
5. Circulatory problems. Many preemies experience a number of circulatory problems, from low blood pressure to anemia (low red blood cell count) to patent ductus arteriosis (excess blood flow to the lungs via a prenatal pathway that generally closes shortly after birth, but tends to stay open in preemies). These can generally be treated with a variety of medications and/or blood transfusions.