What You Should Know About Premature Birth

Drs. Shanthy Sridhar and James Bernasko discuss why every week of development before birth is important — and Stony Brook’s services for high-risk moms and premature babies.

What's the danger in being born early?

A full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks long, and every week makes a difference in the growth of a baby’s brain, lungs, liver and other organs. The brain, for example, grows four- to five-fold in size between 35 and 40 weeks. While it’s well known that babies born before 34 weeks of pregnancy are at a higher risk for death or disabilities, we have learned more recently that “late preterm babies” — those born between 34 and 37 weeks of pregnancy — also need special attention. They may have feeding problems, hypothermia, jaundice, developmental issues and a higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

What can women do to prevent premature births?

Seeking early and ongoing prenatal care is the most important thing a pregnant woman can do to ensure her health and the health of her baby. For example, ultrasounds can tell us the due date and check development. At 12 weeks, we can draw blood to check the risk for conditions like Down’s syndrome and other abnormalities. If a heart problem is suspected, echocardiography performed between 18 and 24 weeks can detect most major heart defects, helping the delivery team to prepare appropriately. And as the pregnancy progresses, we look for conditions that might trigger early labor. Many issues can be addressed through interventions such as monitored bed rest, cerclage (stitching the cervix if it is too weak to support the baby) and medications for women who have had a previous preterm delivery.

What if labor begins prematurely despite these efforts?

We can help. Stony Brook offers Suffolk County’s only state-designated, regional perinatal center — which means we have the highest level of facilities, technology and expertise to care for high-risk women and critically ill newborns. Each year, more than 200 high-risk pregnant women are transferred to us from other hospitals. And we treat more than 1,000 sick newborns each year (which includes about 100 babies who are transferred to us) in our 46-bed, single-patient-room neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Another thing that makes us unique in Suffolk is that we’re a teaching hospital. We train the perinatologists (who care for high-risk mothers and their unborn babies) and the neonatologists (who care for newborns) of tomorrow.

When it's time to go home, how does Stony Brook Children's help premature babies and moms prepare?

Our high-risk obstetric inpatient unit is staffed with perinatologists and nurses trained to help high-risk mothers and their families to get the best start possible. We also have many programs that focus on breastfeeding, safe sleeping (to avoid SIDS), preparing moms and families to care for their baby at home and helping them navigate the early months of parenthood once they are discharged:

  • A quarter of our nurses are certified lactation specialists who work with mothers to succeed in breastfeeding and pumping milk.
  • We’re adopting cue-based feeding, which means we look for signs that the baby is ready to accept feeding. This leads to earlier success with full, oral-based feeding.
  • We teach families about the safest sleeping positions for infants, and encourage babies discharged from the NICU and newborn nursery to use a sleep sack, which is a wearable blanket and safer alternative to crib blankets. We practice safe sleep in all of our pediatric areas.
  • A suite is available within the NICU that provides parents who are bringing home a baby who’s technology-dependent — for example, on a pulse oximeter, apnea monitor or other device — to stay overnight and practice providing care with support from our nursing staff.
  • We are the only institution in New York State with a March of Dimes®-funded NICU Family Support Program which supports parents while their infant is in the NICU and provides education to parents and their family members about how to care for their baby after discharge.
  • Our Keeping Families Healthy Program makes home visits post-discharge to ensure moms and babies are doing well.,

What else distinguishes Stony Brook's approach to neonatal and perinatal care?

Stony Brook Medicine is Suffolk County’s only state-designated, regional perinatal center caring for critically ill newborns. Annually, more than 100 infants and 200 high-risk pregnant women are transferred to Stony Brook from other hospitals in the region, and we treat more than 1,000 sick newborns each year in our 46-bed, single patient room NICU. As a teaching hospital, we also train the neonatologists of tomorrow.We are the only center in Suffolk County transitioning to whole body cooling therapy to term and near-term infants born with encephalopathy to help prevent severe cerebral palsy and long-term developmental problems.

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All health and health-related information contained in this article is intended to be general and/or educational in nature and should not be used as a substitute for a visit with a healthcare professional for help, diagnosis, guidance, and treatment. The information is intended to offer only general information for individuals to discuss with their healthcare provider. It is not intended to constitute a medical diagnosis or treatment or endorsement of any particular test, treatment, procedure, service, etc. Reliance on information provided is at the user's risk. Your healthcare provider should be consulted regarding matters concerning the medical condition, treatment, and needs of you and your family. Stony Brook University/SUNY is an affirmative action, equal opportunity educator and employer.