Yvonne has been an online writer for over eight years. Her articles focus on everything from recipes to children's health.
Premature Baby Statistics Can Be Scary
If you have a premature baby it is easy to feel frightened by statistics. Statistics tell you that your baby is more likely to have hearing or eyesight problems, movement disabilities, learning difficulties, developmental delay, and behavioral problems. I’ve even read articles that say your premature baby is more likely to have depression as a teenager.
All this paints a grim future for your child and does little for your confidence as a parent.
Let’s Look Behind Some Premature Baby Statistics
When our daughter was born at 26 weeks we regularly heard that babies born this early have a 1 in 4 chance of having a hearing impairment. Let’s turn that around: based on these statistics, if born at 26 weeks, a baby has a 75% chance of having no hearing problems.
That sounds somewhat more encouraging, doesn’t it?
A study that began in 1979 at King’s College Hospital in London followed up 1500 children born prematurely. Unlike most studies that end when the child starts school, this one has followed premature babies into adolescence and beyond. The study included brain scans and assessed social, emotional and behavioral development.
What surprised the research team was how well these adolescents were doing, in spite of their premature births. They showed competence in social and extracurricular activities equal to children born at term, and only a slight difference in academic ability.
As the British charity Bliss points out in its download PDF Research Evidence, much of the research available was done on children born in the 1990s, and neonatal care has improved markedly since then. This is extremely important because it can be in the days and weeks after birth that babies experience the illnesses or physical trauma that lead to the development of long-term conditions.
Bliss also points out, as I have above, that while more babies may have problems than those born at term, many have no problems. Bliss attributes this partly to support from parents, teachers and health professionals, and stresses that a nurturing environment is crucial to their healthy development.
What Are Some Risks for Your Premature Baby?
Cerebral palsy and breathing difficulties are often associated with babies born prematurely. While the outlook is not necessarily bleak, here is what you should know about these conditions.
Cerebral palsy is often linked with prematurity. In this condition the normal signals between the brain and muscles are disrupted, causing movement and coordination difficulties. It used to be believed that lack of oxygen at birth was a major cause of cerebral palsy, but this is now considered responsible for only 5 –10% of cases.
More frequently something damages the baby’s brain while still in the womb, possibly an infection such as rubella or toxoplasmosis. In rare cases it is genetic. Some premature babies experience bleeding into the brain after birth, which can lead to cerebral palsy. Most hospitals conduct brain scans to check for bleeding and will be able to advise you on your baby’s condition.
Some mothers at risk of giving birth prematurely are now being given magnesium sulfate at birth to protect against cerebral palsy – but while some studies found this to be very effective, other disagree.
Having read many articles on research into cerebral palsy, what is clear to me is that experts do not agree on how prevalent it is in premature babies. What they do agree on is that the smaller your baby and the earlier he or she was born, the higher the risk. Black babies born early are more at risk than white babies.
Read More From Wehavekids
Even so, your baby has a higher chance of not having cerebral palsy than of having it. One study suggests that babies weighing less than 3.5 pounds have a 5% chance of developing the condition. This means they have a 95% chance of not doing so.
If you think your baby may be at risk of Cerebral Palsy, the signs to watch out for are:
In babies over 2 months: difficulty controlling head or stiff legs
In babies over 6 months – reaching with only one hand, while the other remains in a fist.
In babies over 12 months – unable to crawl, or crawling with one arm and leg only, or unable to stand with support.
Breathing Difficulties, Especially With Colds
The other most common problem for babies born prematurely is of contracting lung infections. Even if your baby is considered to have chronic lung disease, as our daughter did, the outlook is far from bleak.
Our daughter spent a few hours on a ventilator the day she was born, and then was transferred to a C-PAP machine that delivered air into her lungs under pressure, but did not do the breathing for her. At one week old she was able to breathe for 30 minutes without assistance. By evening that same day she was on a ventilator, having contracted a lung infection. She spent 2 weeks on the ventilator, and remained on oxygen for several more weeks. At one stage doctors warned us she might come home on oxygen but she then improved enough to come home without it.
Two weeks later she was back in hospital, on a ventilator, and seriously ill with another lung infection.
Since then she has spent only one more night in hospital due to breathing difficulties, but has frequently had asthma and chest infections with colds. She is now 12 and it is well over a year since she has had any breathing difficulties, even when contracting a cold. She is on a very low dose of inhaled steroids, and does Buteyko Method breathing exercises.
If your baby has had chronic lung disease, even if she or he seems fine most of the time, it is sensible to be alert for breathing difficulties with a cold or other virus. Be sure to read the symptoms to watch out for below, or my article on bronchiolitis symptoms in babies.
Don’t wait for your child to tell you they can’t breathe properly. Children often simply accept how they feel and don’t realize they need help, especially when they are small.
Symptoms to Watch For:
Feeding difficulties in a baby, or loss of appetite in an older child
Fast breathing (in a baby this is over 60 breaths a minute, by the age of 5 it is over 30 breaths a minute)
Difficulty performing exercises they would normally find easy. For example our daughter was slow as we set out to walk to school one morning so I took her to the doctor. She had a chest infection.
Your Premature Baby Is in Good Company
Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, and Isaac Newton were all born prematurely. Your child is in good company!
"There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is."
Albert Enstein, scientist, genius, and premature baby.
Now Let’s Look Behind Some More Statistics
I have lost count of the number of newspaper or online articles I have read stating that babies born very prematurely are likely to have learning difficulties or delayed development.
Firstly, remember that most studies were done on babies born in the 1990s or earlier. Your baby born today has a better chance than a baby born in 1995.
Secondly, I’d like to point out that delayed development is still development.
Thirdly, a baby born 3 months early does not suddenly ‘catch up.’ In the first three months of life, that baby has developed in the same way that a fetus develops in the last trimester of pregnancy. Apart from socially, at 3 months, this baby is in all respects a newborn baby and should be treated as such for developmental checks.
Yet in many countries a child born 3 or 4 months early is placed in a school year group based not on their true developmental age, but on their date of birth. Had we stayed in England, where our daughter was born, she would have gone to school a full year earlier than she did in Scotland. It’s quite likely she would then have been considered slow to develop, whereas she is currently above average, with a report of “excellent” for progress in every subject.
Upon starting school our daughter took longer to read than her sister did, but even in Scotland, based upon her expected date of birth, she is young for her school year group, whereas her sister is among the older children in her school year. The older our preterm baby gets the more easily she copes with learning and school.
My advice to anyone with a child born very early is: if at all possible delay sending your child to school until the year when they should start had they been born at term. That way you give them the best possible chance to develop as they would have had their birth been ‘normal’.
This is especially important with boys born prematurely, who for reasons that are not entirely clear, tend to have more problems overall than girls, including learning difficulties.
Children born premature sometimes have difficulty following complex instructions and this is the one aspect we have occasionally noticed in our daughter.
How you can help your child to learn
If you find your child does not follow instructions, try breaking them down into smaller steps. For example, with a small child, instead of saying, “Take off your shoes and put them on the rack,” say, “Take off your shoes.” When that has been carried out, then ask him to put them on the rack.
Will Your Child Find Happiness?
Another apparent statistic is that as teenagers, children born prematurely are more likely to be depressed. I was very surprised when I first read this assertion, since my daughter is one of the happiest people I know. I have often wondered if her early brushes with death somehow left her with a deeper love of life. From when she was a small child people commented on how cheerful she is, and if the neighborhood kids are outside playing it is her laughter that’s loudest and longest. So the suggestion that premature babies grow up to be depressed teenagers puzzled me.
But taken alone, statistics tell us nothing about the cause of that depression.
As I have written in other articles about premature babies, it is common for mothers to feel guilty when babies are born early. This guilt can lead to depression. I had moments of feeling that way, especially in my daughter’s very early days and after she came home.
But I had exceptional support from the nursing staff in the Intensive Care Unit where my daughter spent her first 5 ½ weeks. As well as emotional support, this included being able to hold my baby in Kangaroo Care, learning baby-massage, and later support in establishing breast-feeding. After my daughter came home I also had regular visits from a very caring Health Visitor.
Not all mothers are so fortunate. I met women who were struggling to come to terms with the shock of the early birth and who had little or no support. A depressed mother is less able to express love, and is less confident in her ability to care for her baby, and feeling ‘useless’ is more likely to lead to feelings of disconnection, so creating a vicious circle.
Children mirror their parents, especially mothers, so it seems reasonable to guess that a mother with untreated depression may have a child who later also develops depression.
Therefore if you are the husband, relative or friend of a mother with a premature baby, make sure she gets the support she needs. And if you are the mother of a premature baby and you feel depressed and guilty, the most loving thing you can do for your baby is to get support for yourself. You deserve it and so does your little one.
Let’s All Think Like Einstein!
To end this article I’d like to return to the Einstein quote at the beginning.
How often I heard the phrases, “She’s a miracle,” or “It’s a miracle she survived,” in the months after my daughter’s birth.
Very early in her life I knew that my daughter, whether or not she survived, had touched so many lives, including mine, in a tremendously positive way.
We can choose to live our lives looking for problems or we celebrate the miracle that is our child’s life in whatever form it takes.
Further Reading and Links to Research Cited in this Article
The King’s College Study of premature babies born at University College Hospital
Causes of Cerebral Palsy on the Website: Origins of Cerebral Palsy
March of Dimes: Cerebral Palsy
Premature Babies and their Problems by Patient.co.uk
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: My granddaughter is like a 12-year-old emotionally, but not in any other way. Will she ever develop emotionally as an adult?
Answer: I can imagine that must be worrying for you. Without knowing your granddaughter, I can't really say how she will develop. However many people can develop emotionally with support. Support for carers is as important as for the person needing care because when a carer feels stressed it's hard not to react to difficult situations and that in turn can create more challenges. When a baby is born premature, parents, particularly mothers, can feel guilty. (I'd say this is almost universal.) It can also bring a lot of emotion such as shock and grief for everyone close, which might not heal without support. So my suggestion would be, if you haven't already done so, get support for yourself and your granddaughter's parents to help you work through your own emotions about her.
Question: My premature baby grows so slowly. She looks like a three-year-old but she is six. Will this change?
Answer: So long as your daughter has been checked by doctors and they are happy with her progress, I would try not to worry too much. Prematurely born children often are smaller for several years and may catch up later. All children grow at different rates and it's easy to become worried that ours aren't growing "properly." Even children born at term can be small for much of their childhood and grow later - I've known a few children like this, my daughters. I can't guarantee your daughter will catch up later, but so long as you feed her a healthy diet, you are doing the best you can for her.
© 2012 Yvonne Spence
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on January 22, 2016:
Yvonne, thanks for sharing this lens about premature babies and the possibility of cerebral palsy. Thanks for sharing your story about your daughter, too. Very enlightening. I didn't know Einstein, Newton and Churchill had learning difficulties and/or premature babies too. Congrats on HOTD!
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on January 29, 2015:
shasha, that must feel hard for you. Your son will have been through a lot in his first few months and you too. Do you have any support? If not, maybe join a parenting group either online or in your area.
shasha on January 23, 2015:
i have a son premature baby he is very hardheaded he did not listen to me.
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on September 05, 2014:
Hi Audrey, thanks for sharing that. From what I've heard babies do generally do much better now than in the late 80s. What a great attitude your cousin's son has that he doesn't feel it is a disability. My father died last year at 90, and he was also a premature baby (though not as early as my daughter.)
Audrey Selig from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on September 03, 2014:
Hi Melbel - What a wonderful positive hub on prematurity. You are so fortunate to have a child who is happy and free of major problems. I know several premature children, and they are all blessings. The only ones with problems are a cousin's son who is blind in one eye and another cousin's daughter who is deaf. They were all born in the late 80's. The one who is blind in one eye does not feel it is a disability, as that is all he knows. Thank you for sharing this well written thorough article. Sharing, Blessings, Audrey
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on November 25, 2013:
Hello Camille. Although I cannot say for sure, from what I have read and know of children born prematurely it is unlikely that your premature birth is the cause of your mood disorder. I'm not exactly sure what you are experiencing, but it is very common for teenage girls to experience fluctuating moods; partly this is due to changing hormones, and partly it is simply that the teenage years are challenging - you are going through a lot of changes such as leaving school and so on.
All of us, both children and parents, do the best we can. Even the very best of parents can't always meet their children's emotional needs, and from an early age all of us learn to suppress feelings that our parents find uncomfortable - and then we parents pass this on to our children. It's nobody's fault - and it can change.
You might find it helpful to read my article: Boosting Confidence and Self-Esteem Tips For Teens (https://hubpages.com/hub/Boosting-Confidence-and-S... This has a fuller explanation of what I've touched on in this comment or if you often feel angry you could try my articles on how to let go of anger.
Camille on November 22, 2013:
I am a premature baby born on 8th months. I searched all about premature babies because i want to know something how we grow up as an adult, I am now 18. I have these mood disorder that can't be described as moodswings. So i thought that this is bec I was born premature. I am not blaming my parents bec they're giving me everything I am in college and i guess i am healthy. I'm just curious if my mood is a result of me being premature baby? Can you give me answers' I would really appreciate it.
Thank you and God Bless.
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on July 12, 2013:
Hi Unvrso, glad to hear your brother is doing well, and thanks for your comment.
Jose Juan Gutierrez from Mexico City on July 11, 2013:
Very interesting hub about premature babies. I have a brother who was born with this characteristics. Fortunately, he´s doing well presently.
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on October 05, 2012:
ExpectGreaThings, how lovely that your daughter is doing so well! Thanks for add to the hub with your personal experience.
ExpectGreatThings from Illinois on October 04, 2012:
Very interesting. My 4 year old was premature so your article caught my eye. We have had a healthy happy girl since she was about 3 months old. I appreciate your positive outlook.
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on October 03, 2012:
Ochoachristina, you are wise to keep your child away from sickness when he is still very young. I'm glad to read that he is doing well, and wish you both the very best! Thanks for your comment.
OCHOACHRISTINA5@GMAIL.COM on October 03, 2012:
MY SON WAS BORN PREMATURE . AT 8 MONTHS AND HES VERY SMART AND LIKES TO PLAY ON HIS OWN. HE S AMUNE TO EVERY SICKNESS THAT THERE IS . I HAVE TO TELL MY FAMILY THAT WHEN THEY ARE SICK TO STAY AWAY. HES VERY SPECIAL IF ANY ONE OUT THERE HAS A THE SAME CHILD AS I DO. KEEP THAT CHILD SAFE.
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on August 01, 2012:
Nettlemere, it hadn't occurred to me either until I read it in an article by the UK charity Bliss. (I did have a link to that article, but unfortunately Bliss seems to have removed their article because the link broke a while ago.) Apart from improved equipment, even practices such as kangaroo care are far more widespread now than they were in the 1990s, and KC has been shown to hugely increase babies' chances of survival.
Thanks for your comment.
Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on August 01, 2012:
I was very interested in your point that most studies are from the 1990s and things have improved since then. Not something I'd have thought about, but very valid.
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on March 12, 2012:
Thank you Simone, I feel so touched by your comment.
I’m not surprised you didn’t know all the risks for premature children; I didn’t either until I had my daughter!
Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on March 12, 2012:
I had no idea that premature children would have a heightened risk of so many negative complications. That's unfortunate! Thanks for sharing your experience and the interesting stats. You're a fabulous mother, Melovy!
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on March 11, 2012:
Thanks so much for reading and for your very kind comment.
My first daughter was quite big (though not huge) and 2 weeks late, so it was a big surprise when my second daughter came so early. I certainly didn’t always feel positive in those first days, but I had such amazing support.
I do think it’s so important to not take statistics too seriously as there are so many factors that aren’t included, and the way stats are presented makes such a huge difference. But I am 100% positive I really appreciate your support!
Sondra from Neverland on March 11, 2012:
Thank you so so much for a peek at the emotions and stats a mother and premature baby have to learn to live with. My babies were all huge and at term so I never spent time reading up on the futures of these tiny babies. I love the way you turn the scary statistics around from 5% chance of a problem to 95% chance of no problem. I bet your wonderful positive attitude has a lot to do with how your daughter has grown and developed.
Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on March 11, 2012:
Thank you so much for reading and for your very kind comment. (And I’m so glad I’ve got the facts accurate since the first reader is a nurse!)
You are so right, when the glass is half full the possibilities are amazing. My hope is that this article will help others to find their glass half full - or even fuller!
Maria Jordan from Jeffersonville PA on March 11, 2012:
"Her laughter is the loudest and the longest..."
Oh this entire article is laced with accurate facts about the worst that could happen but much much more so with the very best of what did/ can happen with a premature baby. Healthcare professionals can write countless texts on the subject, yet the best information lies in the inspirational stories such as yours, girlfriend.
When the glass is half full, the possibilities are amazing.
Voted UP & UABI-- fabulous! Love, Maria