Short and Long-Term Effects of Preterm Birth

Preterm birth is the leading cause of newborn death. Advances in neonatal care and treatments for preterm babies have greatly increased the chances for survival of even the smallest babies.

But survival is not the only outcome measure. Babies born before 37 weeks are still vulnerable to increased risk for death and to many short- and long-term effects of premature birth.

All babies born preterm are at risk for serious health problems. Even babies born only four to six weeks early can have effects from the preterm birth such as breathing difficulties, feeding problems, jaundice and effects on brain functions.

Short-Term Effects of Preterm Birth

  • Preterm babies often require special care in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). In general, the earlier the preterm infant, the greater the likelihood that life support will be needed, meaning a longer stay in the NICU.
  • Preterm babies are at higher risk of being readmitted to the hospital and at higher risk of death after they go home.
  • Two of the most serious problems of preterm birth are respiratory distress and immature brains:
    • Serious breathing problems are common in preterm infants and may even require that the baby be put on life support (ventilators). These babies may have breathing problems through the first year of life and increased risk for asthma later.
    •  The brain is the last major organ to mature in babies. The immature brain continues to develop even after the time of birth. The more prematurely the baby is born, the more likely it is that bleeding or other signs of stress will affect the brain. Even at 35 weeks, the baby's brain weighs only two-thirds what it will weigh at term (about 40 weeks). If the baby is born early, even just a few weeks early, this important brain growth takes place in an abnormal environment (outside the womb).

Long-Term Effects of Preterm Birth

  • Preterm babies can suffer lifelong effects such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, visual and hearing impairments, and poor health and growth.
  • Babies born only a few weeks early (late preterm, 34-36 weeks) often have long-term difficulties such as:
    • Behavioral and social-emotional problems
    • Learning difficulties
    • Increased risk of conditions such as Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
    • Increased risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
  • Children born preterm are more likely to require early intervention and special education services.
  • Children born preterm are more likely as adults to have chronic diseases such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.


Kentucky Children's Hospital is the only hospital in central Kentucky that offers a Level IV NICU to care for the tiniest babies.

Call 1-800-333-8874 or visit our website or the following sites:  

Healthy Babies Are Worth the Wait® is a multifaceted partnership of the March of Dimes, the Johnson & Johnson Pediatric Institute and the Kentucky Department for Public Health. The primary goal of the initiative is a 15 percent reduction in the rate of "preventable" single preterm births - particularly babies born late preterm (four to six weeks early) - in three targeted intervention sites in Kentucky: King's Daughters Medical Center in Ashland, Trover Health System Regional Medical Center of Hopkins County and the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital in Lexington. Health care teams at each site provide mothers-to-be with an integrated approach of education, counseling and clinical care. 

This content was produced by UK HealthCare Brand Strategy.

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