The official definition of a premature baby is one born before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy.
Advances in medical technology now mean that most babies born from 32 weeks survive. Before 32 weeks, babies run into problems caused by the immaturity of their lungs - a condition known as Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS).
At the moment, survival rates start at about 23 or 24 weeks. After 25 weeks, there is a progressive increase in the chances of survival and a healthy baby.
Why are some babies born early?
There are several factors and conditions:
• When a baby is delivered early to save mother or baby's life (for example, pre-eclampsia).
• A multiple-birth pregnancy.
• Premature birth can be associated with smoking.
• Premature births are often linked with an infection.
• Congenital abnormalities in the baby.
• An 'incompetent' cervix can lead to early birth.
Most premature babies are delivered by Caesarean section. However, some mothers do deliver vaginally. It is possible that even while you are in labour you might be transferred before delivery to a specialist neonatal unit. In a few cases, a mother can find herself in one hospital while her baby is transferred to another with a neonatal unit. Wherever possible, your carers will try to avoid this.
If in intensive care, your baby will be cared for in an incubator, and will have a tube down his nose and throat and a lot of lines attached to his body, monitoring circulation, temperature, oxygen levels and so on.
Your baby's first few days in the neonatal unit can be quite crucial. Be prepared for the fact that you might be on an emotional roller-coaster as your baby takes two steps forward and one step back. New drugs, more accurate monitoring, improvements in ventilators to help with breathing, and many other advances have improved the outlook enormously.
Parents are very much encouraged to help in their baby's care and in the majority of cases, all being well, are able to take him or her home at about the time as he was due to be born.
Fortunately, for most parents of premature babies born after 28 weeks, the 'end' of the story is usually a happy one.