Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS): Babies with RDS lack a protein called surfactant that keeps the small air sacs in their lungs from collapsing. Luckily, many babies with RDS can be treated with synthetic surfactant. These babies also usually need help breathing with oxygen and sometimes a respirator (a machine that breathes for the baby). About 24,000 babies in the United States are affected with RDS each year. Most of these babies are born before the 34th week of pregnancy.
Intraventricular Hemorrhage (IVH): Intraventricular hemorrhage is the medical term for bleeding in the brain. Most bleeds occur in the first three days of life and get better by themselves with no or few lasting problems. Some severe bleeds require medical intervention and can cause brain damage (such as learning problems, behavioral problems and cerebral palsy).
Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC): NEC is an inflammation that damages the intestine. It usually develops 2 to 3 weeks after birth. NEC can lead to feeding problems, swelling in the baby's belly and other complications. It is treated with drugs and sometimes surgery.
Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP): ROP is an eye condition caused by the abnormal growth of blood vessels. It can result in vision loss and blindness. In some cases, ROP gets better by itself. In other cases, it is treated with a laser or cryotherapy (freezing). It occurs mainly in babies born before the 32nd week of pregnancy.
Chronic Lung Disease (also called bronchopulmonary dysplasia or BPD): Babies who have this disease develop fluid in the lungs, scarring and lung damage, which can be seen on an X-ray. They are treated with oxygen and drugs. Their lungs usually improve over the the first two years of life. But many children develop a chronic lung disease resembling asthma. This condition can last for many years.
Infections: Premature babies are at higher risk of developing infections than full-term babies. Their immune systems are immature and not as able to fight off infections. Serious infections seen in premature babies include sepsis (a blood infection), pneumonia, and meningitis (infection of the membranes surrounding the brain). Infections are treated with antibiotics or antiviral drugs.
Anemia: Premature babies are often anemic. This means that they do not have enough red blood cells. Babies with anemia may have feeding problems and grow slowly. Anemia also can make heart or breathing problems worse. Anemia is treated with iron supplements and drugs that increase red blood cell production. In severe cases, the baby receives blood transfusions.
Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA): PDA is a heart problem that is commonly seen in premature babies. A large blood vessel (the ductus arteriosus) is supposed to close at birth so that the baby’s blood can circulate normally. In PDA, this blood vessel does not close. Drug treatment can help close the passageway. If that does not work, surgery is needed.
Apnea: Apnea occurs when a baby stops breathing for 20 seconds or more. The baby may also have a slow heart rate. Premature babies are constantly monitored for apnea. If a baby stops breathing, the monitor will sound. A nurse will stimulate the baby to start breathing by patting him or touching the soles of his feet. Sometimes after leaving the hospital, a baby uses an apnea monitor at home for some weeks.