All About Premature Birth and Preterm Babies

Having a premature baby can be an overwhelming experience for any parent. However, it’s important to remember that every premature birth and family is unique, and your neonatal care team will provide you and your baby with the best care possible. With the right medical care and a supportive network around you, you can provide your preemie with the love and attention they need to thrive. In this article, we will discuss the meaning of ‘premature’ birth and what a premature baby is, including signs of premature labour and the special health needs of a preemie.

What Is Considered Premature Birth?

A full-term pregnancy lasts for about 40 weeks, calculated from the first day of your last menstrual period. This day is your estimated due date but, keep in mind, every pregnancy is different, and most babies are actually born in the week either side of their due date – not necessarily exactly on their due date.

If your baby is born up to 3 weeks before you reach 40 weeks of pregnancy it’s not necessarily classed as premature.

So, what does prematurity mean? Under the guidelines applied in the UK, if your baby is born before the end of the 37th week of pregnancy this is what is classed as a ‘preterm’ or ‘premature’ baby.

Not all ‘preterm babies’ fall into the same group and the neonatal care team will take into account the number of weeks your baby is premature. This may sometimes affect your baby’s early development and the type and amount of special care that may be needed in the weeks after birth.

Premature babies can be grouped into three broad categories based on the week of pregnancy they were born:

  • Moderate to late preterm. Baby born at 32 to 37 weeks

  • Very preterm. Baby born at 28 to 32 weeks

  • Extremely preterm. Baby born before 28 weeks

Birthweight Categories

You may also hear your preterm baby described in terms of how much they weigh at birth. As you might expect, premature babies tend to be smaller than babies born on or around their due date, because they had less time to grow inside the uterus.

The categories of low birthweight are:

  • Low birthweight. Less than 2500 grams at birth

  • Very low birthweight. Less than 1500 grams at birth

  • Extremely low birthweight. Less than 1000 grams at birth.

In Summary

Babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy are considered premature, and how much additional medical care and support they could need varies a lot depending on how many weeks premature they are and how much they weigh at birth.


How Common Is Premature Birth?

In the UK, around 8 out of every 100 babies are born before 37 weeks. Most of these premature babies will be born moderate to late preterm. Very preterm births are far less common, while extremely premature babies – born between 22 and 28 weeks of pregnancy – are even rarer, at less than 1 in every 100 births.

Most premature births occur naturally, but around a quarter of babies born before 37 weeks are delivered early to protect the health of the foetus and/or mother.

Risk Factors for Premature Birth

Premature birth is often spontaneous and there may be no known reason for it happening; however, there are a few risk factors that may increase the chances of giving birth prematurely. These include:

  • A previous premature birth

  • Smoking, alcohol or drug use

  • Having twins or multiple babies

  • Diabetes

  • Weakness of the cervix

  • Pre-eclampsia (a rare but serious blood pressure-related condition)

  • Age – pregnant people below the age of 18 and over 40 are more likely to give birth prematurely.

If you, your doctor, or midwife think you’re at risk of premature birth, you can discuss your options together to receive the best care possible.

How Early Can a Premature Baby Be Born?

With advances in medical science and standards of neonatal (newborn) care in neonatal care units (NICU), the chances of premature babies graduating from the NICU are improving all the time.

Can You Decrease the Chances of Preterm Labour?

There’s no magic recipe for preventing preterm labour, but some things have been shown to help lower the risk:

  • Attend all your antenatal appointments and let your doctor and midwife know about any acute conditions or possible risk factors you might have, such as a previous miscarriage, cervical surgery or a previous premature birth can help.

  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle. As smoking, alcohol and drugs are associated with a higher risk of preterm labour, it’s recommended to reduce your intake of these substances, especially during pregnancy.

  • Aim for healthy pregnancy weight gain. Being overweight may also increase your risk of health issues that can be associated with premature birth, such as diabetes or pre-eclampsia. Keep in mind that experts only advise actively trying to lose weight before you become pregnant. Slimming during pregnancy is not recommended, but by sticking to a healthy, balanced diet and getting gentle exercise you can do a lot to help keep your pregnancy weight gain on track and reduce the risk of complications.

In Summary

Certain things have been shown to help reduce the risk of early childbirth, such as making healthy lifestyle choices, attending all of your antenatal appointments, and taking steps to avoid or protect yourself from illness and infections that are known to be associated with a higher rate of premature labour. 


What Does Premature Labour Feel Like?

Call your midwife or the maternity unit where you plan to give birth straight away if you’re less than 37 weeks pregnant and think you might be experiencing signs of premature labour.

It’s important to determine as soon as possible whether labour really has started so that measures to ensure the safest possible birth – or delay delivery if this is the best course of action – are as effective as they can be.

Early signs of labour can include:

  • Regular contractions or tightening around your bump

  • Cramping or period-like pain

  • Fluid trickling or gushing from your vagina

  • An unusual backache.

Keep in mind, not all feelings of contractions indicate that labour has begun. You may be experiencing Braxton Hicks practice contractions. If you’re unsure about what you’re experiencing, call your midwife or doctor right away. Read our article all about Preterm Labour to discover more about the cause, signs and symptoms.

What are the Potential Health Needs of Premature Babies?

As a parent, your greatest wish is for a safe and healthy birth and a happy and healthy child.

Keep in mind, that every preterm baby differs, including the medical conditions that may or may not be present, and modern neonatal care is capable of more than ever before.

The longer your foetus spends inside the uterus, the more time they have to develop and mature. This means that, generally, the less premature your baby is, the more development they will have gone through.

With all this said, below you’ll find some potential health conditions premature babies may have based on the week of pregnancy they were born:

Moderate to Late Premature Babies

If your baby was born moderate to late preterm (at 32 to 37 weeks), they may be pretty much like a full-term baby, only smaller. Some possible health conditions may include:

  • Breathing issues

  • Jaundice

  • Low blood sugar levels

  • Reduced ability to fight infection.

Very Premature Babies

Babies born at 28 to 32 weeks may face health conditions such as needing help with breathing. The specialist staff at the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) will be able to explain any health issues.

Extremely Premature Babies

Babies born before 28 weeks are considered extremely premature and still have a lot of developing to do. Each baby's outcome depends on various factors like gestational age, birth weight and overall health.

Your baby may be required to stay in the NICU for an extended period of time. The midwives and NICU specialists will work closely with you to determine the best course of care for your baby. Every case is different, but your preemie will be in excellent hands in the Neonatal Care Unit.

Our article Navigating the Arrival of a Preterm Baby offers advice and information to help you navigate through this period whilst looking after your mental well-being.


The reasons for a premature birth may not be known in every case, but some factors can make it more likely, such as:

  • Pregnant with multiples
  • An infection
  • Early breaking of waters
  • Abnormalities of the uterus or cervix
  • If you have a chronic health condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure
  • A previous preterm birth
  • Fertility treatment
  • Smoking.

The Bottom Line

Preterm birth and caring for a preemie baby can be a worrying prospect for you as a parent, but keep in mind that most premature babies fall into the moderate to late premature group, where complications– if any – are often minor.

To keep any risks to a minimum, it’s important to let your doctor or midwife know as soon as possible if you experience any possible signs of preterm labour such as regular contractions, cramping or a discharge of fluid.

If your baby does arrive early and needs special care, rest assured that they will be in the best hands. You’ll have access to the care and support you need to ensure that your baby has the best possible chance of thriving and reaching their full potential.

Friends and families of babies born prematurely can now order their Pampers Preemie Protection Nappies online for free home delivery via Pampers also continue to donate Pampers Preemie Protection nappies direct to hospitals, and via ASDA pharmacies (in-store only and subject to availability)

How We Wrote This Article The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the National Health Service (NHS) and has been reviewed by the Bliss team. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.

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