Coming soon: AboutKidsHealth is getting a new look! Learn more Watch a video tour

Challenges of Prematurity

Sleeping baby in NICU, hands upSleeping baby with feeding tube in the NICU

In addition to the unplanned and sometimes emergency nature of a premature birth, premature babies face additional and often immediate challenges. Premature babies are at risk for difficulties immediately following birth due to the immaturity of their organs and perhaps other problems as well. They must quickly adapt to the environment of the outside world, for which they are not completely prepared.

The health care team’s first priority will be to stabilize the baby, help with the baby’s breathing if necessary, and address any other immediate problems. In general, the more premature the baby is, the more assistance and interventions he is likely to need to be stabilized.

This section outlines the physiological challenges that are common for premature babies, including problems with breathing, blood circulation, and digestion. Also discussed are issues concerning the brain and some other challenges. All of these conditions are presented in brief, outlining the causes and general course of the problem.

The unborn baby: Timeline of growth and development

This table charts the timeline of the development of the major organs and systems. It is presented here to give a sense of how developed each organ is at the time of the premature birth.

While all of an unborn baby’s organ systems and structures begin to develop in the first few weeks of pregnancy and most are fully formed by the end of the first trimester, some are not fully developed. For example, the lungs and respiratory system and the brain continue to develop right up until the final weeks before childbirth. As each organ grows and matures, it begins to function, not only doing what it was designed to do as an individual organ, but also functioning in concert with other organs.

Below is a detailed description of the development of the major organs from conception through to birth.  

Growth and Development Highlights
Get Adobe Flash player

Andrew James, MBChB, MBI, FRACP, FRCPC