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What are the major complications for premature babies?

Complications for premature babies

Premature births can lead to complications and in such a tiny, fragile person, it’s extremely important that every precaution is taken.

If you have a baby in NICU or SCU, here are some of the potential medical complications for premature babies and infants that the medicos will be looking out for.


As a premature baby’s immune system is very compromised, they will be placed in an incubator/humidicrib to provide protection.


Many premature babies suffer from jaundice. Treatment involves babies put under a special light called phototherapy.


Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS)

This is when babies have difficulty breathing due to a lack of an agent in the lungs called surfactant.  Treatment may include the use of a  respirator (ventilator) and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)

Chronic Lung Disease

This occurs when babies lungs start to deteriorate.  This is most common in babies who have had prolonged use of a ventilator  as their lungs are still immature and sometimes can not withstand the constant pressure of the ventilator


Due to complications arising out of respiratory issues, pneumonia can occur.  Pneumonia results in not enough oxygen reaching the body.  Treatments includes antibiotics as well as supplemental oxygen and intubation. If this is left untreated, it can evolve into a deadly infection or lead to sepsis or meningitis.

Apnoea and Bradycardia

Apnoea is the temporary stopping of breathing by the baby.  Bradycardia is the reduction of heart rate. A foetal or neonatal heart beat of less than 100 beats per minute is abnormally low.  Normal foetal heart rate is 120-160.

An alarm will normally sound if a baby is experiencing either an apnoea or bradycardia. Usually a light tap or rub on the back reminds the baby to start breathing or brings the heart rate up.

Intraventricular haemorrhage (IVH)

Babies born at less than 34 weeks have an increased risk of bleeding in their brain. This happens because immature blood vessels may not tolerate the changes in circulation that take place during labour.  This can lead to complications like cerebral palsy, mental retardation and learning difficulties.

Inability to maintain body heat

Premature babies have very little body fat and immature skin which makes it difficult for them to maintain their body heat.  Consequently, they are placed in an incubator until they are able to regulate body temperature themselves.

Immature gastrointestinal and digestive system

Premature baby’s gastrointestinal systems are too immature to digest nutrients safely.  Initially, they will be fed through intravenously (IV).  After a few days they may be fed through a tube until they are ready to suck and swallow.


This is caused by abnormally low concentration of red blood cells. Most newborns should have levels higher than 15 grams. Premature babies are at a high risk of having low levels and therefore susceptible to anemia. If the anemia is severe, treatment involves blood transfusion.

Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA)

This is a congenital heart defect whereby the baby’s ductus arteriosus (open blood vessel) fails to close after birth. Treatment involves a medication that stops or slows the production of prostaglandin E (a chemical compound that help keeps the ductus arteriosus open). In serious cases surgery may be required.

Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP)

This is a disease that can cause blindness in premature babies.  There are many different stages and treatments dependent on how severe it is.

Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC)

This happens when a part of the baby’s intestine develops poor blood flow that can lead to infections in the bowel. Treatment includes IV feeding and antibiotics, and in serious cases, sometimes surgery.


This is a medical condition in which bacteria enters the blood stream. Sepsis often brings infection to the lungs and therefore can lead to pneumonia. Treatment involves antibiotics.

The material provided here is for informational purposes only and should not replace, or be used as a substitute for, professional medical advice.

Visit our Premmie Baby Information Hub for more article, support and resources for parents of premature babies.

SUPPORT: Get support from others in our online Premmie Baby Support section in our forum.


– this article has been written with information from representatives of the National Premmie Foundation

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