When a baby comes early — sometimes months before he is expected — preemie parents go through the most unsettling moments of their lives. Their tiny baby faces an uphill challenge and often has to be helped to take his first breaths. Everything from digestion to maintaining body temperature and blood pressure can be a struggle, and some babies have to spend months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to get round-the-clock care from doctors and nurses.
In those moments, it can be hard for parents to think about the future. But the good news these days is that medical breakthroughs and technology allow for the survival of many preemies. Even those born at 24 weeks — a full month before the third trimester begins — have a decent shot at life.
The less-than-stellar news, though, is that many of those babies will have some preemie traits that last well into adulthood. They might be at an increased risk for vision and hearing issues, as well as heart problems and even diabetes. Research has revealed that preemies even have a susceptibility to certain personality traits — although the best news is that these little survivors are fighters that have proven that they can get through anything. Here are 20 preemie traits that last forever.
20 Asthma For Life
The lungs are among the last organs to develop while a baby is in the womb. So if a baby is born early — even a few weeks, but certainly when it comes a few months early — a preemie can struggle to breathe and may spend months on oxygen. Those problems aren't temporary, though.
Preemies are a lot more likely to have asthma, a chronic lung problem that can cause a person to struggle for air. Some children and adults have allergy-related asthma problems while others can have severe episodes that can be scary and potentially deadly.
Studies show that babies born just a month early have an increased likelihood of asthma, and while it might get better, it could last a lifetime.
19 Digestion Issues
Babies who are born before their digestive system is mature can struggle to gain weight and take their bottle. But preemies can continue to have digestive issues long after they go home from the hospital, and it can last for the rest of their lives.
The baby's bowels can be so problematic that they might need surgery that removes a portion of it. They can deal with scarring and other digestive issues that come up for years. It's possible for an adult to continue to have trouble eating food because of all of the struggles that come when they are born before their digestive system is ready.
18 Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is a possibility for any baby, but the chances go up astronomically for babies who are born prematurely. According to research, two or three out of every 1,000 newborns have hearing loss, but the number for preemies is 15 out of every 100.
Doctors are now looking into the possibility that the hearing loss may not be because of the development of the ears but because of high amounts of antibiotics that preemies are given in the first few weeks of life.
Unfortunately, the hearing loss persists, so many little ones grow up dealing with issues. There is no cure, although treatments like cochlear implants are becoming more commonplace, and many children and adults learn to communicate in other ways.
17 Tooth Problems
Babies don't have any teeth when they are born, whether they come at 40 weeks or 24 weeks. But the babies that come earliest are likely to have some problems when their pearly whites finally do come in.
In fact, even though the baby comes early, it's possible that the teeth will come late, and when they do come in, they might not have a lot of enamel, which can cause discoloration and a propensity for cavities. Preemies might also have issues with their palate because of the intubation that they have during a NICU stay. It can cause the roof of the mouth to develop differently, which might mean issues with crowding and positioning of the teeth.
That means that preemies are more likely to need braces later on, and they might even end up with speech issues that need some attention. Luckily, most of these issues can be addressed, but that might require a lot of money and time at the dentist's and orthodontist's office.
16 Weaker Body, Stronger Spirit
Moms who have preemies are all too aware that their baby's body is fragile. They have hopes that the baby will grow bigger and stronger, and often that is the case. But it is possible that a preemie's muscles will remain weaker for quite a while after the birth.
Some of that is because the muscles aren't used as much as a newborn would during those months that a premature baby spends in the NICU. Instead of tummy time and building working toward rolling over, the baby is concentrating on figuring out breathing and growing.
That might put his muscles behind the curve and even cause some atrophy. But a preemie's strong spirit often means that they will catch up in time.
15 ADHD Issues
A lot of moms expect that their preemie might have some physical struggles, but they might be surprised to find out that being born early can affect behaviour, as well. According to recent research studies, children who were born prematurely are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
ADHD, as it is known, can hinder children from staying on task during school, although there are therapies and medications that can help. The study found that children born a month early were at greater risk, but the possibility increased if the baby came even earlier, with babies born between 23 and 28 weeks having more than double the likelihood as children born at term.
14 Risk-Taking Limited As Adults
Independent of the physical issues that premature babies face in the beginning and throughout their lives, there is some research that has tried to determine if there are personality traits that might be found more often in preemies when they grow up. And some studies have determined some possibilities.
For one, research shows that adults who were born prematurely are likely to be more risk-averse than other people. That might be because their lives were at risk when they were so tiny that they don't even remember it, but that hasn't been determined.
We're sure that moms who have already gone through a lot of stress would be comforted to know that the baby that they worried about so much after birth isn't likely to be skydiving later on in life.
13 Vision Issues
The last trimester is very important for the development of the baby's eyes. But when the baby is born early, that can mean that the development is interrupted. On top of that, the issues that can happen in the first few days of life for a baby born earlier than 31 weeks can cause issues with the blood vessels in the eyes, and they can go get a condition called retinopathy of prematurity.
The condition can cause vision loss that might require a toddler to need glasses or even be legally blind. In mild cases, a child might not need glasses until they are older, maybe even 8 or 9, and some can be OK. New research is investigating how to treat the condition, and that could mean that the baby's vision could get better by adulthood.
There are other conditions that could impact a premature baby's vision for life, so it's important to get eye exams for years to make sure that the baby can see as well as possible.
12 Developmental Disabilities
This item on our list doesn't happen to every premature baby. In fact, it's fairly rare. But there are times when a premature baby might have developmental disabilities.
Sometimes that means that they could require some therapies and interventions to catch up with other kids, but it might also mean that they remain a bit behind for life.
The developmental disabilities might come from a genetic disorder or condition that causes premature birth, or it might happen because of oxygen deprivation or other complications that come with an early birth. But these babies are fighters and many defy the expectations of doctors.
11 Anxiety As An Adult
When a premature baby is in the NICU and fighting for life, it's the parents that go through a lot of anxiety, but later on, in life, research shows that many times a baby born early will grow to experience their own anxiety later in life.
Some studies have shown that those born early deal with "internalizing" type of issues, such as anxiety and depression as adults. Those diagnoses have been on the rise in recent years, but there are also more therapies and medications available to help.
And thankfully, they don't have the same stigma associated with them, so today's premature babies are even more likely to get help when they become adults.
10 Cerebral Palsy
A baby's brain is very fragile, and that is even more true for a premature baby, who might have to deal with issues such as oxygen deprivation, bleeding on the brain, severe jaundice and other issues. That is why preemies are more likely to have neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy.
About one or two of every 1,000 full-term newborns could develop cerebral palsy, but for babies born before 28 weeks, it could be as many as 100 out of 1,000. It can happen when a part of the brain doesn't develop or it is injured before, during or after the birth.
It isn't always apparent at birth, but as the baby is starting to hit milestones, it may be more apparent. CP can cause a number of physical issues, including problems walking, although therapy and medications can help a preemie to have a much better quality of life as an adult.
9 Sleep Struggles
It might seem like a preemie sleeps all the time, especially in the first few months of life. But there might be a time when sleep is a struggle for a person who was born early. Research has shown that babies might have clinical sleep issues as early as before their second birthday, and those issues might continue later in life.
Toddlers need their sleep, but doctors have reported restlessness and breathing trouble at night for preemies as they grow. They are more likely to suffer from sleep apnea as adults, which means that they might still feel tired when they wake up for the day.
Doctors are discovering more and more about sleep disorders and how to help, so today's preemies might be better off in the future.
8 Blood Pressure Possibilities
The smaller the baby is when he is born, the more likely he is to deal with blood pressure problems as an adult, according to a recent study. Since most babies born early are underweight, the issue has been linked to prematurity as well.
Hypertension, which is another name for having chronic high blood pressure, can lead to other health issues, including an increased risk for stroke or heart attacks. That means that adults who were born prematurely might need to make changes to their diet or take medications to manage their high blood pressure so that they can be healthier later on in life.
7 Other Chronic Breathing Problems
More and more babies are surviving when they are born extremely early, even before the second trimester is over. But a number of them need a lot of support with their lungs, and some have even gone home from the hospital with a breathing apparatus that may be part of their world for the rest of their lives.
About one in four babies who are born before 28 weeks will have bronchopulmonary dysplasia, which is a chronic issue with the lungs. It could require therapy and oxygen for years. Many babies eventually get better, but it can take a lot of time, and it might even be an issue for life.
6 Immune System Concerns
Life with a preemie in the NICU can be very scary, but the truth is that the fears don't end once the baby is bigger. That's because any time that illnesses make their rounds in communities, preemies are at risk. The immune system can be compromised for years to come.
Even when they are in elementary school, a child who was born prematurely is the most likely to get sick during RSV season, and his parents should watch carefully during the flu season.
A preemie can be immune-compromised all the way into adulthood, possibly because of the high doses of antibiotics that he was given so early in life.
5 Insulin Issues
Diabetes is a growing problem in the United States among adults, and while obesity is a huge factor in that increase, a recent study that links prematurity to insulin issues might mean that more cases are on the way, since babies are surviving premature births in greater numbers.
Children and adults who are born with low birth rates and who were premature showed insulin issues. That could lead to type 2 diabetes, which can be hard to manage. Doctors haven't figured out the cause of the correlation, but they said prematurity can be used to help screen people to make sure that they have a healthy lifestyle to avoid diabetes later in life.
4 Social Struggles
When preemies are taken to the NICU, they spend time in a tiny little bed called an isolette. The name is ironic since research has found that one trait that seems to stick with preemies is that they tend to feel more isolated as adults.
Adults who were born prematurely have reported many times that they have feelings of isolation and loneliness, according to a research study. It's not clear why this happens, but it's definitely a shame. Moms should do what they can to teach social skills when their preemies are younger so that they can grow up and help fill that void with friends.
3 Heart Conditions
Heart defects are the most common type of congenital birth defects for all newborns. That's because the formation of the heart in the very first months of pregnancy is a very delicate process and there can be tiny defects that aren't noticeable to big problems that might require surgery or even transplants.
Preemies are at risk for other types of heart conditions if they are born before the final development stages of the vital organ.
Premature birth can cause weakness in the heart, and the ups and downs of the first few weeks of life could cause issues such as blood pressure problems and abnormal heart rhythms. Some of these issues might be temporary, but there is a possibility that the child might require more treatment as she grows.
2 Time To Catch Up
Moms might worry about a preemie's development. After all, their little bodies start out with a disadvantage and they likely have to struggle to get well. But the truth is that preemies are given extra time to catch up. Their milestones are adjusted for gestational age and that is OK.
It might take a little while for a preemie to reach the same stages that babies born at term might reach. But most of them eventually sit up, walk and talk. They can receive a number of interventions and therapies that can help along the way, and parents should be sure to take advantage of that help for their little one.
1 Little Survivor
Preemies certainly have their struggles. Those first few weeks or even months of life can have major ups and downs and multiple health worries. And being born early has its lasting impacts, from the heart to the personality and beyond. But the amazing thing about preemies is that they are born fighters and many times that fighting spirit continues forever.
A NICU graduate is a survivor. Since preemies had to struggle to breathe and their bodies have to battle for everything that they get, it's easy to see their inclination to be persistent and fierce. The preemie life might be tough, but so is the little one, and no matter what he faces, he has proven that he can thrive.