Preemies are babies born before the 37th week of pregnancy. According to the WHO, about 15 million babies are born too early every year in the world—that’s more than one in 10 babies. In the U.S., about 1 out of every 8 babies is born premature, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Preterm babies have a higher risk of developing serious medical problems, including asthma. The earlier a baby is born, the more severe his/her health problems may possibly be.
Preemies and Lung Problems
Preterm babies face many different health issues, including conditions that affect their lungs. Here are some of the lung and breathing issues a preemie might face:
Apnea of prematurity: this happens when a baby stops breathing and is caused by their immature central nervous system, which controls the brain and lungs. About 85% of preemies born before the 34th week develop apnea of prematurity.
Respiratory distress syndrome: premature baby’s bodies are not able to create a substance known as surfactant, which is a chemical that keeps the lungs inflated. As a result, preemie lungs do not inflate well; this is typically treated with artificial surfactant or possibly a ventilator until the baby is able to breathe on its own.This condition affects about 43% of preemies born between the 30th and 32nd weeks.
BPD: Bronchopulmonary dysplasia is a chronic lung condition caused by airway inflammation. BPD affects about 3% of babies born between 30 and 32 weeks.
These lung conditions can cause changes to the baby’s lungs, possibly leading to permanent damage of lung tissue. As a result, about 10% of all preemies may go on to develop asthma by 8 years of age. In addition, a preemie’s immune system is not able to fight off colds and other respiratory infections. Respiratory infections are another cause of asthma in infants and children.
How to Decrease Risk of Preterm Birth
Some (but not all) premature births can be prevented; there are several things a mom-to-be can do to increase the odds that her baby can go to term:
1). Keep asthma controlled during pregnancy. Asthma can cause a woman to go into labor early. There is less chance of this happening if the mother keeps her asthma controlled and stable during pregnancy. Most asthma medications are safe for pregnant mothers and their babies, and provide one of the best ways to avoid having an asthma attack during pregnancy.
2). Maintain a healthy weight by staying active and eating a balanced diet.
3). Avoid stress.
4). Get prenatal care as soon as possible. Maintain prenatal visits throughout pregnancy.
5). Seek medical attention for any warning signs or symptoms of preterm labor. These include: contractions every 10 minutes or more often; any change in discharge; pelvic pressure (the feeling that the baby is pushing down); low, dull backache; cramps (that feel like period cramps); abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea.
6). Avoid asthma triggers.
7). Quit smoking and avoid exposure to second-hand smoke.
What if Labor’s Started Early?
Doctors may choose to give a pregnant woman steroid injections, if labor has started and the baby will be preterm. Steroid injections work to help the baby’s lungs mature. There may be a need to delay the labor in order to ensure the steroids have enough time to work. Certain drugs may be given to enable pregnancy delay.
After the birth, the baby is typically moved to a neonatal intensive care unit ( NICU), where he/she is placed in a warmer (incubator) and will be connected to monitors that track the baby’s heart rate, breathing and blood oxygen level. If a baby has breathing problems, a tube may be placed into the baby’s windpipe that is connected to a ventilator, which helps the baby to breathe.
A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine may be used for babies whose breathing troubles are less severe, or they may only require extra oxygen.
More and more preemies are surviving these days due to improved medical care. However, the longer a pregnancy lasts, the risks for asthma and other health problems decrease and the baby has a greater chance of survival and being healthy.
If you’re a pregnant mom who has asthma, be sure to see your asthma specialist as often as directed during your pregnancy. Be sure to stay on your asthma management plan and take all medications according to your doctor’s instructions. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor questions or express any concerns you may have about how your asthma may effect your baby, or how a preterm birth may effect your baby's health.
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