Other medical conditions and premature birth

If your premature baby has any of the conditions below, ask the healthcare team to explain anything that you don’t understand.

Necrotising enterocolitis (NEC)

This condition is a serious complication of prematurity that affects the intestine. It involves infection and/or inflammation of the bowel wall. The cause of necrotising enterocolitis is unclear, but it may be due to bacteria or insufficient blood flow to the gut either before or after birth. Some studies have shown that breast milk could protect vulnerable babies from necrotising enterocolitis. If your baby is too ill to breastfeed, you can still express milk and it can be fed to them through a special tube.

Intraventricular haemorrhage

Intraventricular haemorrhage is the name for bleeding in the ventricles of the brain (fluid-filled cavities in the brain). Some haemorrhages are very small, and are not thought to lead to long-term problems, while others are large and can be associated with later problems such as cerebral palsy or seizures. In recent years fewer premature babies have bleeding in the brain partly because steroids are often given to women at risk of giving birth prematurely and these help to protect the brain from this complication.

If your baby does have a bleed on the brain, the  healthcare team will check how severe the bleeding is by doing an ultrasound scan. The more premature the baby, the greater the risk of intraventricular haemorrhage.

Jaundice

Jaundice is common among newborns, and almost all premature babies develop it. In paler-skinned babies, jaundice shows as yellow-coloured skin, while in babies with darker skins, the yellowing may show only in the whites of the eyes. The degree of jaundice is measured from a blood sample.

Mild jaundice will often pass on its own, or with special light therapy called phototherapy, which involves laying the baby under bluish lights (with eye shades on) or on a fibre-optic blanket that emits light at the correct wavelength. Occasionally jaundice indicates that the baby has a more serious illness. The healthcare team will assess this and may need to carry out further tests in order to find the right treatment, which may include a blood transfusion in severe cases.

Anaemia

Anaemia means not having enough iron stores in the baby’s body, and it is common in premature babies. This happens for a range of reasons, including the baby's ability to generate red blood cells and the fact that the team has to take blood samples so often. Anaemia may also indicate a transient problem with blood group incompatibility/rhesus incompatibility.

Your baby's doctors will carry out tests to find out the cause. If your baby has anaemia they may have pale skin, lack of energy and rapid heart rate. Most cases of anaemia can be treated through good nutrition and iron supplements, although some babies need a blood transfusion or hormone treatment. The likelihood of needing a blood transfusion at some point during the NICU stay increases with younger age at the time of birth.

The following organisations can give you more information about the topics covered in this section.

The baby unit

Caring for your baby

  • Mother holding baby to her chest.

    Kangaroo care

    Skin-to-skin contact with your premature baby is a wonderful way for you both to bond. It also provides health benefits.

  • Mother holding premature baby.

    Caring for your baby: your role

    You will play an important part in your premature baby's care, even while they are in the NICU.

  • Premature baby using feeding equipment.

    Feeding your premature baby

    Your premature baby's diet will be carefully balanced to suit their tiny digestive system while meeting the needs of their growing body.

  • Premature baby in incubator.

    Positioning your premature baby

    Positioning your premature baby correctly can make them feel secure, improve their breathing ability, strengthen their muscles and reduce the risk of cot death.

Treatment and medical support your baby may have

Sources

  1. Macdonald S and Magill-Cuerden J (2012) Mayes’ Midwifery, Fourteenth Edition, Edinburgh: Bailliere Tindall Elsevier
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Last reviewed on October 5th, 2016. Next review date October 5th, 2019.

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