Roughly 10 percent of babies in the US are born prematurely. This is defined as birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Premature birth is linked to a higher risk of birth injuries and severe or permanent disabilities. Babies may need extra monitoring in the hospital or may need treatment in the newborn (neonatal) intensive care unit. However, a child has a strong chance of survival after a premature birth if they receive proper attention and care.
Degrees of Prematurity
The risk of health problems increases with the degree of prematurity:
Late preterm: 34 to 36 weeks
Moderate preterm: 32 to 34 weeks
Very preterm: before 32 weeks
Extremely preterm: at or before 25 weeks
Medical Care After Premature Birth
Babies who are born prematurely may not have organs that are sufficiently developed to support them. As a result, they may need to stay in the newborn intensive care unit until they can eat and breathe independently. Doctors in the NICU also will want to ensure that a baby can maintain a stable temperature without an incubator and has started to gain weight normally before they leave the hospital. Often, a baby will not be allowed to go home until they weigh at least four pounds.
After a child leaves the NICU, parents may need to provide special care for the child at home, while taking them to a neonatologist. This is a specialist who focuses on caring for premature babies and other children with serious health problems. They can check on the condition of the baby, keeping an eye out for long-term problems that may develop.
Complications Associated With Premature Birth
Many problems affecting premature babies involve their breathing. For example, a child may suffer from a lung disease known as bronchopulmonary dysplasia, which can cause lung damage or expose them to a risk of infections. They may suffer from apnea of prematurity, which involves pauses in breathing that may accompany a slow heart rate. A doctor also may monitor a premature baby for respiratory distress syndrome. This means that their lungs do not produce enough surfactant, which protects the air sacs in the lungs.
Other conditions following a premature birth involve the blood. The risk of intraventricular hemorrhage (severe bleeding in the ventricles of the brain) increases in proportion to the degree of prematurity. A child who frequently undergoes blood tests in the NICU may suffer from anemia, or a lack of red blood cells that can lead to problems with maintaining oxygen and glucose levels. This is because they cannot replace blood cells lost during blood tests fast enough. An excessive amount of bilirubin in the blood may occur in premature babies, leading to a condition known as jaundice that may indicate liver problems. While jaundice by itself is usually not serious, it may develop into a condition called kernicterus that may cause brain damage.
Additional complications linked to premature birth include:
Infections: The weaker immune system in a premature baby exposes them to a greater risk of infections and potentially sepsis, which is a body-wide inflammation that can cause organ failure and death.
Retinopathy of prematurity: A severe case of this eye disease, which involves an underdeveloped retina in the back of the eye, may cause vision problems or blindness.
Necrotizing enterocolitis: This condition involves damage to intestinal tissue, which may eventually die if the condition worsens.
Patent ductus arteriosus: A blood vessel known as the ductus arteriosus may fail to close normally, which may cause excessive blood flow to the lungs and cardiovascular and respiratory complications.
Compensation for Medical Errors Affecting Premature Babies
A baby who undergoes a premature birth is especially fragile. They should receive careful monitoring and potentially special treatments to avoid or mitigate the risk of serious complications. If a child does not receive the appropriate care, permanent disabilities may result. Parents who suspect inadequate care by an NICU or neonatologist may want to explore the possibility of bringing a medical malpractice claim.
Most birth injury lawyers offer free consultations, at which they can evaluate the strength and value of a case.
Compensation in medical malpractice cases may account for past, present, and future treatment costs, as well as the pain and suffering endured by a child. To get these damages, parents likely will need to provide testimony from a medical expert who is familiar with the defendant’s field. An expert witness can explain the standard of care that would apply to specialists treating a premature baby in a similar situation. They can identify the errors committed by the defendant and trace them to conditions developed by the child. Securing expert testimony can be challenging without the assistance of an attorney, so parents should not risk pursuing a claim without representation.