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How early is too early to deliver?

When I was newly pregnant, I had a miscarriage scare. I worried for the next few months and breathed a giant sigh of relief when I started the second trimester. Then a neighbor went into early labor and I had a new worry. So how early can a baby be born?

Modern medicine is amazing, especially when it comes to treatments of premature babies. It is nothing short of miraculous, the advances in understanding that have drastically improved the outcome of extremely early deliveries. Here is the current reality:

Before 22 weeks

Babies are unlikely to survive at this stage. There is a 14.8 chance of survival at 22 weeks, but even then, half of these babies have brain damage. As of now, the earliest a baby can be born is 22 and a half weeks. No baby has been successfully delivered before this time. Most babies born at 22 weeks weigh about one pound and do not have functioning lungs, since their airways are not fully developed.

23-24 weeks

Survival at this stage depends on birth weight and health at birth: 25 percent of babies survive when born at 23 weeks, and 42 percent survive in the 24th week. Babies born at 23 or 24 weeks depend on a ventilator and around-the-clock care to survive. They have very little body fat and muscle tone. Since they cannot suck and breathe at the same time, they must be fed through an IV.

27 weeks (Extremely early)

90 percent of babies born who are treated in a NICU will survive to at least one year of age. Babies this age deal with the constant threat of hypothermia, low blood sugar, low blood pressure, and infection. They also need help breathing. Though survival rates are extremely high, 25 percent of surviving babies have severe or moderate disabilities, ranging from hearing loss and vision problems to learning disabilities.

28-31 weeks (Very early)

Premature birth at this age will still require specialized care in the NICU. While they are much stronger than extremely early babies, they are still at risk for hypothermia, low blood sugar, and infection.

Neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) are equipped with everything an extremely early baby might need, such as incubator, overhead heater, all kinds of monitors, feeding pump, IV, and ventilator. But not all hospitals are equipped with NICUs. More have a local neonatal unit (LNU) to handle the needs of a stronger but still early baby.

In the absence of a medical problem, babies are healthier with longer stays in utero. But long-term outcomes are reassuring. Only a few of the babies born in weeks 28 and 29 will have problems with eyesight, hearing, movement, or brain development.

32-33 weeks (Moderately early)

Some babies this age are able to stay with their mothers in a transitional care ward but they still require special care because of problems with breathing, feeding, and infection. Most babies born at this stage weigh between three and four pounds, and are as long as babies at full term (18-19 inches).

Gaining weight is the primary concern of babies born before 34 weeks, since they do not have sufficient body fat to maintain a healthy body temperature. Babies born in this range are also at risk of infection and may have trouble sucking.

34-36 weeks (Early)

Babies this age are incredibly small and strong. They may not need any special treatment or they may need some transitional care depending on how well they are feeding, regulating blood sugar, blood pressure, and infection.

In the last few decades, babies have been considered term at 37 weeks. Since then, many people, including medical professionals, have assumed that not much development occurs after. But new data shows that there is a lot of essential finish work being done in the last few weeks of pregnancy. For example, a baby’s brain at 35 weeks weighs only two-thirds of what it will weigh at 39-40 weeks. Because being born before 39 weeks isn’t without risks, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has redefined the meaning of “term:”

37-38 weeks (Early term)

Though babies born at 37 weeks were considered full term for many decades, doctors now know that some important development still takes place in weeks 37 and 38. Findings show that babies delivered electively at 37 weeks are four times more likely to spend time in the NICU and have respiratory issues than babies born at 39 or 40 weeks. Babies at this stage still undergo brain, lungs, and liver development.

39-40 weeks (Full term)

Babies at this age are significantly better off than babies born earlier. They breathe better, have gained enough weight to better regulate body temperature, and can suck, swallow, and stay awake long enough to eat.

In my experience, late babies are calmer babies as their nervous systems have had longer to develop. All four of my babies have been born after their due date and all of my sister’s babies have been born before. Those sweet, early babies are more than fine today. They just needed more patient, attentive care in that first month compared to their cousins.

How to Minimize Your Chances of Premature Birth

Still wondering, “How early can you have a baby?” In short, the odds are exponentially better if you deliver after 27 weeks, but a small percentage of babies survive between 22-26 weeks. Rates of survival without complications increase with each week of pregnancy.

So how can you minimize your chance of premature birth? Here are a few tips:

  • Start your pregnancy at a healthy weight and gain the recommended amount of weight during pregnancy.
  • Avoid smoking, drugs, and alcohol while pregnant.
  • Do everything you can to reduce stress in your life.
  • Get vaccinated and protect yourself from infections.
  • Visit your doctor for treatment of chronic health problems.
  • Wait 18 months to get pregnant between children.
  • Avoid heavy lifting and intense physical activity, especially in the later weeks of pregnancy.

 

Have you delivered a pre-term baby?

References:

WebMD.com

er to develop. All four of my babies have been born after their due date and all of my sisters have been born before. Those sweet, early babies are more than fine today. They just needed more patient, attentive care in that first month compared to their cousins.

Have you delivered a pre-term baby?

References:

WebMD.com

Author Info

Owlet Team

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14 thoughts on “How early is too early to deliver?

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Beth

Remember that your “due date” isn’t always 100% accurate … many women ovulate earlier or later than textbook average and don’t know it.

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Kate

Good article and thanks for knowing am not alone my doctor mentioned that my baby’s growth has slowed down and am scared as hell. Am only 25weeks and he is 550grams. All am doing is trusting God and believing he didn’t give me this gift and not bring it to term.

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Lisa

I am having a slumber party with my grandchildren tonight because my daughter is in the hospital in labor. She is only 30 weeks and 4 days and is carrying triplets. They are trying to stop the labor to give the boys a better chance. Thank you for this article. It made me feel a little better. All along the doctors have been happy with their size so everything might be ok.

Anonymous

I had both of my children early. One at 36 weeks and one at 36 weeks 4 days. Both were healthy (7.5lbs and 7.9lbs) and came home the next day. No complications and no disabilities. Just early babies.

Anonymous

My baby girl was born 27 weeks and one day… she was 2lbs 10oz, it was the scariest experience I have ever been through, she’s been in the nicu doing really well I have a strong little girl still waiting on more test and I pray to god everything is ok, no matter what I’ll love her forever I just don’t want her to suffer

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Isabel

Begin a first time mommy has made me aware of everything that can go bad and everything that can go good. This article was very helpful. It’s very important to know what can happen and what to expect. To all the mother having their little angles premature; I pray things get better.

Anonymous

My baby girl was born at 25 weeks and 4 days. 750 g. (1.5 lb) it’s been a very long intense stay at nicu for both of us. When she was born i had very little hope that she will live, now i’m counting days until we can bring her home! Thinking about getting owlet because of all the desats and bradys that are so common in preemies.

Jordan Monroe

Wow. I can’t even imagine having to go through that. Thanks for sharing. Any advice you would give to other parents that are going through a similar experience?

Brandy

My sweet boy was born at 25 weeks 1 day. He weighed 1lb 9oz and dropped down to 1lb 3oz during his NICU stay. We spent 108 days in the NICU. He was two weeks old before I was able to hold him. We had many scares. He will be three in November and is doing wonderful. We’ve done physical therapy and probably will need speech therapy. Stay strong mama! You are in a storm now, but this too shall pass. I wish I had known about this company earlier.

Lacey Pappas

Great advice, Brandy! Sounds like your 3-year old is quite the champ!

Angela Silva

Being pregnant, this article was good for me to read as I tend to “what if” towards the end of my pregnancies. I always think “well, it’d be okay and they’d be fine if they came this week” but in reality there is a huge difference in those last few weeks. Thank you!

Lacey Pappas

You are welcome!

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Jane

Angie, I thought the same thing—my first baby was born full-term so I expected the same for my second, and in fact, didn’t even give early labor much thought until my water broke at 35 weeks. I remember frantically researching and reading everything I could about premature babies, from my hospital bed while in labor. I had no idea what to expect. I wish I had done some research earlier on in my pregnancy, just in case, to at least know possible scenarios. It would have eased my stress just a little bit that day.

Angela Silva

It’s nice to know that medical professionals are putting more info out there about it, too, especially as more women are electing to be induced or have C-sections before “full term.” Great info!