PREMATURE BABY DEVELOPMENT
Mother, Baby & Child|April 2021
Having a premature baby can be a deeply stressful time for parents, including the worries about how development will be affected by their prematurity. Here, we look at the typical developmental challenges and norms of premature babies.

Premature babies and the risk of development problems

Most premature babies will go on to develop like full-term babies, however, the earlier that premature babies are born, the more likely it is that they may have development challenges.

Late pre-term babies

Most premature babies are late preterm and are born just a few weeks early, at around at 34-36 weeks. Many of these babies’ organs are fully developed, but there are still lots of changes happening in their brains.

These babies have a very small risk of development problems and breathing difficulties compared to full-term babies, as their lungs are one of the last things to develop. These babies may need to stay in hospital to put on weight and learn to feed by coordinating their sucking, breathing and swallowing.

Extremely premature babies

Premature babies born at less than 28 weeks and babies born with an extremely low birth weight (less than 1 kg) have the highest risk of development problems. This risk increases if they also have medical complications during their stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

If you have any concerns about your baby’s development, trust your instinct and speak early to your child and family health nurse, doctor or paediatrician. Your child might sometimes need to see other professionals too, like audiologists, optometrists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and dentists.

Language development in premature babies

Most premature babies develop language normally, but the development of their language might be delayed. They may have more trouble speaking and understanding what is said to them, compared to full-term children. Language problems can also sometimes be an early sign of hearing, thinking or learning problems.

Physical development in premature babies

The majority of premature babies have typical physical and motor development, although premature children tend to be smaller and lighter than full-term peers.

Motor problems

About 40% of very premature children have mild motor impairments. These include problems with:

Fine motor skills – for example, holding a pencil

Motor planning – for example, working out how to walk around obstacles

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