8.1  Why do preterm or low birth weight babies need special care?

Preterm and low birth weight babies are at increased risk of dying from hypothermia, infection, breathing problems and immaturity of their vital organs. As a result they may be unable to adapt to life outside the uterus. The key reasons why they need special care are summarised in Box 8.1.

Box 8.1  Characteristics of preterm and low birth weight babies

  • Parts of their nervous system are not yet well developed.
  • They have little fat under the skin; especially their brown fat is low. Brown fat is very important to generate heat for the newborn baby; it is found mainly over the shoulders, back, kidneys, neck and armpits.
  • They lie very still so they can't generate heat by moving much.
  • They have a high ratio of surface area to body weight compared to that of a child or adult, so they lose heat quickly from their skin.
  • They have immature lungs so they have breathing problems.
  • They don't have much immunity so they will be extra vulnerable to infection.
  • The veins in their brain are thin and immature and are prone to bleeding.
  • They may be too weak to feed well.

An example of why preterm and low birth weight babies need special care is that they have a very poor resistance to fight infectious disease, because their immune system is not yet well developed. Therefore, on top of what is required for all babies, you and the mother need to be meticulous about hygiene and other infection prevention measures (described in Study Session 6). Everyone who handles the baby should wash their hands very thoroughly first and handle the baby very carefully. You can easily damage the soft and thin immature skin of the preterm or low birth weight baby, creating an entry point for infection.

Learning Outcomes for Study Session 8

8.2  Classification of preterm and low birth weight babies