Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2007;76(8):1165-1166

See related article on premature infant care.

How do I know if my baby is premature?

Your baby is premature if he or she is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy or more than three weeks before he or she is due.

Why does it matter if my baby is born early?

Premature babies are more likely to get certain illnesses and have problems such as lung, intestine, or ear infections. These problems are not just seen in infancy and may happen later in childhood.

Premature babies also have growth problems. They need extra calories and nutrients (for example, iron and calcium) to grow to a normal size for their age. Special charts made for smaller, premature babies may be used to track your baby's growth.

What should I feed my baby?

Breast milk is the best food for all babies, including those born early. Premature babies have special nutrition needs and may be given special formulas in addition to breast milk. They may also need extra iron to prevent anemia. Anemia is when you have fewer or smaller red blood cells than normal.

Should my baby get the usual childhood vaccines?

Yes. Vaccines are important. They prevent many serious illnesses in children. Most vaccines are given to premature babies at the same time as they would be given to full-term babies.

Respiratory syncytial (say: RESS-pih-rah-tor-e sin-SEE-she-el) virus (RSV) is a common illness that causes lung infections in babies. Being born early can increase the chance of having a very bad RSV infection. RSV vaccine is not usually given to healthy full-term babies, but it may be important for your baby. Your doctor will let you know if your baby should get the RSV vaccine. Five doses of the vaccine are needed. Your baby should get the first dose right before the start of RSV season, which is usually in November.

Babies younger than six months can't get the flu vaccine, but people who are in close contact with your baby can. If these people get the flu vaccine, it will lower the chance of them getting the flu and exposing your baby to it.

What can I do to keep my baby healthy?

You should have follow-up visits with the doctor so that your baby's growth and development can be tracked. Premature babies may have some developmental delays. For example, they may reach for toys or crawl later than other children of the same age. Some delays may be a sign of a developmental disorder, such as impaired language or social skills.

Tell your doctor if you notice any problems that concern you, including if your baby has trouble holding his or her head up or has trouble controlling his or her body when sitting. Also, tell your doctor if you think your baby is having trouble hearing or if your baby is not making noises that you think he or she should make. Premature babies may also need special eye and ear tests. If any test results are not normal, your doctor may refer you to special programs.

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