Tommy's PregnancyHub

Potential health problems and disabilities in premature babies

Premature babies are more susceptible to certain health problems, so your healthcare team will take special care when assessing your child’s development.

Most premature babies grow up to be healthy. But overall, premature babies are more likely than babies born at full term to have the health problems described below.  

This does not mean that your baby will have any of these problems. Speak to your health visitor or GP if you’re worried about your baby or if you notice signs of a health problem.

Those premature babies who are most at risk will have extra growth and development checks to pick up any possible problems early on. 

What problems can affect premature babies’ development?

Premature babies are more likely to have problems that affect their hearing, vision, movement, learning and behaviour.  

Your baby’s early years are an important time for their brain development. You can help by playing with your baby, talking to them and helping them to do new things, such as rolling over or sitting up. Find out more about bonding with your baby.

Learning 

Some children born prematurely do well at school but overall, they are more likely to have difficulties with learning than children born at full-term. The later the baby is born, the milder these difficulties are.  

Try not to worry too much though. Children with learning difficulties who have extra support at school can still reach their full potential.   

Hearing 

Your baby may have had a hearing test while they were in hospital. They may also have further tests with a hearing specialist (audiologist). If your baby has hearing loss, the healthcare team will talk to you about treatment options.

Hearing aids and implants can make a big difference and can help your baby develop their speech and language. 

Sight 

Some premature babies have a higher risk of sight problems. For example, if they had bleeding in the brain, a reaction to an infection (sepsis) or if they had treatment for retinopathy of prematurity. 

Your baby’s eyes will be checked while they’re in hospital. They may then have further checks between the ages of 3 and 6 years, when other possible sight problems are more easily picked up. If your child has a sight problem, they will see a specialist who will discuss treatment options with you. 

Cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy is a group of conditions that mainly affects movement and co-ordination. It is more common in children born prematurely, with those born earliest being at highest risk. 

Cerebral palsy affects how the brain sends messages to other parts of the body. It affects everyone differently with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Symptoms may include problems with balance, posture, talking, chewing or learning.

Babies may show early signs of cerebral palsy, such as: 

  • fidgety movements
  • floppiness or stiffness
  • delays in development, for example, not sitting by 8 months or not walking by 18 months
  • feeding problems.

The symptoms may not be obvious at first, but most children are diagnosed by the age of 2.  

If your baby has cerebral palsy, they will have regular check-ups to monitor their symptoms, which may change as they grow up. Treatment may include physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy or diet therapy. Medicines can help with stiff muscles and some children may have surgery. 

The NHS website has more information about cerebral palsy. You can also contact SCOPE for support and information.

Emotions and behaviour

Children and teenagers who were born prematurely are more likely to have emotional and attention difficulties. For example, they may seem withdrawn, passive or very shy.   

Some children born prematurely may show hyperactive or impulsive behaviour. Children born before 28 weeks have a higher risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autistic spectrum disorder (autism). 

The NHS website has more information about ADHD and autism.

If you have any concerns about your baby

Remember, if you notice anything about your baby that worries you, don’t hesitate to contact your midwife, health visitor or GP. Never worry about bothering them. The most important thing is that your baby is well and that you have peace of mind. 

Taking care of your own emotional health

Like any new parent, it’s important to try and look after yourself as well as your baby. If you have any concerns about your baby’s health, this can affect your mental wellbeing.  

It may help to talk to other parents with similar experiences. The charity Bliss also offers a wide range of services to provide support to parents and families of babies born premature or sick, including peer-to-peer emotional support. Visit the Bliss website to find out more.

If you feel like things are getting out of control, it’s important to ask for help. Don’t hide your feelings or suffer in silence. You are not alone and help is available.

Find out more about coping after a premature birth and coping if you find that your baby has health problems or disability

We also have general information about your mental health after having a baby
 

NICE (2017) Developmental follow-up of children and young people born preterm. NICE guideline 72. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng72

EFCNI, van Kempen A et al. (2018) European Standards of Care for Newborn Health: Coordination and integration of care after discharge home. European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants. https://newborn-health-standards.org/coordination-care-after-discharge/

EFCNI, Koldewijn K et al. (2018) European Standards of Care for Newborn Health: Post-discharge responsive parenting programmes. European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants. https://newborn-health-standards.org/responsive-parenting-programme/

Hughes AJ, Redsell SA, Glazebrook C. (2016) Motor Development Interventions for Preterm Infants: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Pediatrics 2016; 138(4): e20160147; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-0147
  
EFCNI, Jaekel J et al. (2018) European Standards of Care for Newborn Health: Meeting special needs at school. European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants. https://newborn-health-standards.org/special-needs-at-school/

Brydges CR et al. (2018) Cognitive outcomes in children and adolescents born very preterm: a meta‐analysis. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology 2018; 60(5): 452-468.

EFCNI, Oudesluys-Murphy AM et al. (2018) European Standards of Care for Newborn Health: Hearing screening. European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants. https://newborn-health-standards.org/hearing-screening/
  
EFCNI, Ortibus E et al. (2018) European Standards of Care for Newborn Health: Assessment of visual function. European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants. https://newborn-health-standards.org/assessment-visual-function/

EFCNI, Hadders-Algra M et al. (2018) European Standards of Care for Newborn Health: Motor and neurological follow-up assessment. European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants. https://newborn-health-standards.org/motor-neurological-assessment/
  
EFCNI, Johnson S et al. (2018) European Standards of Care for Newborn Health: Mental Health. European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants https://newborn-health-standards.org/mental-health/