How Technology Is Changing What It Means to Be A Preemie

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By Anisa Arsenault, Associate Editor
Updated June 20, 2017
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Will she have a low IQ? Is disability inevitable? Is she going to survive?

These are some of the questions swirling through moms’ minds if they’re at risk for delivering a preemie. While preterm labor is cause for concern, these questions are on their way to becoming antiquated.

A full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks, but delivery at 32 weeks is becoming more and more common. In the 1960s, this was certainly not the case; babies born under 3.3 pounds only had a 28% chance of survival. By 2010, that rate jumped to 78%. Risk factors for preterm labor include having experienced preterm labor in the past, being pregnant with multiples, or having certain pregnancy conditions such as gestational diabetes or high blood pressure.

This week’s TIME magazine cover story explores the " Preemie Revolution ," and serves as a reassuring reminder that babies born at 31, 30, even 29 weeks are routinely surviving and thriving. The magic — unsurprisingly — is in the technology. First of all, the American Academy of Pediatrics formalized standards for NICUs in 2012. New standards for a Level IV NICU meant more technology, more operating rooms, and more staff. That staff includes the pharmacists and nutritionists working to maintain a delicate balance between administering medicine and coaxing feedings.

There have also been huge improvements in helping preemies to breathe. An artificial version of surfactant — a substance the body produces for normal lung function — has lead to fifteen times as many preemie survival rates. Experimental treatment is underway in which babies inhale low concentrations of nitric oxide to increase blood flow to lungs. These are just two in a slew of tools created to help babies absorb enough oxygen.

And one more treatment — not technological at all — is becoming standard for premature babies: kangaroo care (a.k.a. skin-to-skin contact). One of the biggest issues is that preemies, not yet conditioned to be outside of mom, are completely overstimulated by the lights, needles, tubes, and monitors. At a time when you feel painfully useless, part of the solution is actually in your hands. Holding the baby as much as possible increases levels of oxytocin — a helpful hormone for nurturing — in both of you.

Things are looking up for preemies. Every decade since 1960, science has been able to help preemies survive a week earlier.

Did you experience preterm labor or are you at risk for it? What was your experience like?

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