Need to talk? Call 1800 882 436.
It's a free call with a maternal child health nurse. *call charges may apply from your mobile

Is it an emergency? Dial 000
If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately.

beginning of content

Premature baby

5-minute read

Most pregnancies last 40 weeks. A baby born before the 37th week is known as a premature or pre-term baby. Medical advances have meant that more than 9 out of 10 premature babies survive, and most go on to develop normally.

In Australia, almost 1 in every 10 babies is born prematurely. Most Australian premature babies are born between 32 and 36 weeks and don’t have any serious long-term problems.

Very premature babies are at a higher risk of developmental problems. It is possible for babies born at 23 to 24 weeks to survive, but it is risky.

Most babies born before 32 weeks, and those weighing 2.5 kg or less, may need help breathing and may be cared for in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) until they have developed enough to survive on their own. Babies born between 32 and 37 weeks may need care in a special care nursery (SCN)

Why are babies born prematurely?

The cause of premature birth is unknown in about half of all cases. However, some of the reasons babies are born prematurely include:

  • multiple pregnancy (twins or more)
  • the mother has a problem with her uterus or cervix
  • the mother gets an infection
  • the mother has a medical condition that means the baby must be delivered early, such as pre-eclampsia
  • the mother has a health condition like diabetes
  • a history of premature birth

If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant and you experience any of the signs of premature labour, such as contractions, your waters breaking, bleeding, a ‘show’ of mucus from your vagina or a sudden decrease in your baby’s movements, contact your doctor or nearest delivery suite immediately. It may be possible to slow down or stop the labour. But each day the baby stays inside your womb, the greater their chance of survival.

What will happen at the birth?

It is best for very premature babies to be born at a hospital that has an NICU. If the hospital where the baby is born does not have an NICU, you and your baby may be transferred to another hospital.

When you are in labour, you may be given medicines to stop the contractions for a while. This allows you to be transferred to another hospital if necessary. You may also receive injections of corticosteroids 12 to 24 hours before the birth to help your baby’s lungs function more efficiently.

Premature babies can be born very quickly. They will usually be born through the vagina. However, in some cases the doctor may decide it is safest to deliver the baby via caesarean. Your doctor will discuss this decision with you.

A medical team from the neonatal (newborn) unit will be there for the birth. As soon as your baby is born, they will care for the baby in your room, possibly using a neonatal (baby) resuscitation bed. The team will keep your baby warm and help them to breathe with an oxygen mask or breathing tube, and possibly medicine. Some babies need help to keep their heart beating with cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or an injection of adrenalin.

Once your baby is stable, they may be transferred to the NICU or SCN.

What will my premature baby look like?

Babies born at 36 to 37 weeks usually look like small full-term babies. Very premature babies will be small (perhaps fitting in your hand) and look very fragile.

  • Skin: it might not be fully developed, and may appear shiny, translucent, dry or flaky. The baby may not have any fat under the skin to keep them warm.
  • Eyes: the eyelids of very premature babies may be fused shut at first. By 30 weeks they should be able to respond to different sights.
  • Immature development: your baby might not be able to regulate its body temperature, breathing or heart rate. They may twitch, become stiff or limp or be unable to stay alert.
  • Hair: your baby may have little hair on its head, but lots of soft body hair (called ‘lanugo’).
  • Genitals: the baby’s genitals may be small and underdeveloped.

Your premature baby's development

Some common issues for premature babies include:

  • breathing problems
  • heart problems
  • problems in their digestive tract
  • jaundice
  • anaemia
  • infections

Most premature babies will develop normally, but they are at higher risk of developmental problems so will need regular health and development checks at the hospital or with a paediatrician. If you are worried about your child’s development, talk to your doctor.

Problems that may occur later in children who were born prematurely include:

How to calculate your baby's corrected age

When you’re judging whether your premature baby is developing normally, it is important to understand their ‘corrected age’.

The corrected age is your baby’s chronological age minus the number of weeks or months they were born early. For example, a 6-month-old baby who was born 2 months early would have a corrected age of 4 months. That means they may only be doing the things that other 4-month-olds do. Most paediatricians recommend correcting age when assessing growth and development until your child is 2 years old.

When it's time to go home

The hospital will not send your baby home until they are confident both the baby and you are ready. Staff will make sure you understand how to care for your baby at home. They will also show you how to use any equipment you may need.

You will need appointments to see a neonatologist (newborn baby doctor) or paediatrician. Your local child and family health nurse will also see you regularly.

It is normal to feel a little worried when you are looking after your baby yourself after so long in hospital. Take it slowly in a calm and quiet environment until you both get used to being at home.

If you need support, contact the Miracle Babies Foundation’s 24-hour support line on 1300 622 243.

You can also call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak to a maternal child health nurse.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: November 2019

Back To Top

Need more information?

Premature birth & premature babies | Raising Children Network

This essential guide for parents of premature babies covers gestational age, premature birth risk factors, premature labour and premature development.

Read more on website

Premature babies and birth | Raising Children Network

Premature babies are born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Our essential guide covers premature birth, babies, development, NICU and more.

Read more on website

Dads: premature birth and premature babies | Raising Children Network

After a premature birth, it can be hard for dads. Our dads guide to premature babies and birth covers feelings, bonding, and getting involved with your baby.

Read more on website

Premature birth: questions & checklist | Raising Children Network

Our checklist has answers to questions about premature birth and labour, covering where and how premature babies are born, and things to ask medical staff.

Read more on website

Premature birth: coping with your feelings | Raising Children Network

After a premature birth and while caring for a premature baby, it’s normal to have powerful and mixed feelings. Here’s how to cope with your feelings.

Read more on website

Bonding with premature babies in the NICU | Raising Children Network

For parents with premature babies in the NICU, bonding might seem hard. This guide explains how to use touch, song, play and daily care to bond with baby.

Read more on website

Breastfeeding your premature baby | Australian Breastfeeding Association

This article is based on our booklet 'Breastfeeding Your Premature Baby'. The booklet contains valuable information from research on breastfeeding premature infants, as well as experiences of other parents of premature babies to inform, reassure and encourage you. If your baby has been, or is about to be born prematurely, we recommend that you purchase the booklet, which will provide much more information to help you deal with the challenges of breastfeeding and parenting your baby.

Read more on Australian Breastfeeding Association website

NICU: sleep & noise for premature babies | Raising Children Network

Noise in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) can affect how premature babies sleep. Here’s how you and staff can help your premature baby sleep better.

Read more on website

Parents of Premature Babies | Australian Red Cross Lifeblood Milk

Australian Red Cross Lifeblood Milk collects, tests and distributes donated breast milk to help premature babies. Find out if Lifeblood donated breast milk can help your family.

Read more on Australian Red Cross Lifeblood website

Premature birth: practical ways to prepare | Raising Children Network

If you know you’ll be having a premature birth, you can do lots of practical things to prepare – organising help at home, stocking the freezer and more.

Read more on website

Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

Except as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, this publication or any part of it may not be reproduced, altered, adapted, stored and/or distributed in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of Healthdirect Australia.