What is preterm birth?

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Glossary

TermDefinition
Cerebral palsy

A lifelong condition affects an individual’s muscle control, movement and co-ordination. Cerebral palsy is usually caused by an injury that occurs to the brain either before, during or shortly after birth.

Chronic lung disease of prematurity

A condition affecting the lungs of preterm babies leading to difficulties with breathing. Although most preterm babies fully recover, a few may have lifelong breathing difficulties as a result of chronic lung disease of prematurity.

Extremely preterm

Birth before 28 completed weeks of gestation.

Gestation

The period of time during which a baby develops in the womb. The length of a pregnancy is measured in the number of weeks of gestation.

Intraventricular haemorrhage

The blood vessels in a preterm baby’s brain are fragile and can burst easily. An intraventricular haemorrhage occurs when the blood vessels burst and blood leaks into the spaces in the brain where fluid is stored, called the ventricles. If severe, an intraventricular haemorrhage can lead to developmental problems or disability later in life.

Moderate and late preterm

Birth at 32 to 36 weeks of gestation.

Necrotising enterocolitis

very preterm babies’ digestive systems are under-developed at birth. This means their intestine, the tube that carries food from the stomach to the bowel, can become damaged easily. Necrotising enterocolitis is a condition in which a very preterm baby’s intestine becomes damaged, sore and swollen. If severe, this may need surgery to repair the baby’s intestine and it can lead to long term digestive problems.

Neonatal unit

A neonatal unit (NNU), or neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is a hospital ward specialising in the care of sick or premature babies.

Neonatologist

A doctor who specialises in the care of newborn babies.

Occupational therapist

A health professional who helps children and adults to perform everyday activities.

Preterm

Birth before 37 completed weeks of gestation.

Retinopathy of prematurity

A condition that can occur as a result of very preterm birth in which the blood vessels in the retina, at the back of the eye, grow abnormally. If severe and not treated successfully, it can lead to visual impairment or blindness.

Surfactant

The lungs naturally produce a chemical called surfactant to help them stay open when a person breathes out. Very preterm babies may not produce enough surfactant in the first days after birth, which means their lungs may collapse in between breaths. Artificial surfactant is often given as a medicine to very preterm babies to stop their lungs collapsing and to help them breathe.

Term

Birth at 37 to 42 weeks of gestation.

Very preterm

Birth before 32 completed weeks of gestation.

Learning outcomes

By completing this resource you will be able to:

  • To define preterm birth
  • To understand that the more preterm a baby is born, the greater the risk of developmental problems later in life

This resource was developed by:

We would like to thank the following people who all helped in the development of this resource:

Content authors: Samantha Johnson, Sarah Clayton, Lucy Cragg, Camilla Gilmore, Rose Griffiths, Neil Marlow, Victoria Simms.

Technical developers: Heather Wharrad, Aaron Fecowycz, Lydia Jones, Mike Taylor.

Contributors: Susannah Tucker.

Content reviewers: Dr Jonathan Cusack, Consultant Neonatologist, University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust; Dr Stephen Wardle, Consultant Neonatologist, Nottingham University Hospitals; Alison Brown, Teacher; Olivia Smith, Teacher.

Acknowledgements: With thanks to the participants of the PRISM-2 Study Stakeholder Workshop for their role in co-designing this resource.

Funding: The development of this resource was funded by Action Medical Research

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References

Johnson, S., & Marlow, N. (2016). Early and long-term outcome of infants born extremely preterm. Archives of disease in childhood, 102, 97-102. doi: 10.1136/archdischild-2015-309581

Manktelow, B. N., Smith, L. K., Prunet, C., Smith, P. W., Boby, T., Hyman-Taylor, P., … & Draper, E. S., on behalf of the MBRRACE-UK Collaboration. (2017). MBRRACE-UK Perinatal Mortality Surveillance Report, UK Perinatal Deaths for Births from January to December 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.npeu.ox.ac.uk/downloads/files/mbrrace-uk/reports/MBRRACE-UK-PMS-Report-2015%20FINAL%20FULL%20REPORT.pdf

Pierrat, V., Marchand-Martin, L., Arnaud, C., Kaminski, M., Resche-Rigon, M., Lebeaux, C., … & Ancel, P. Y. (2017). Neurodevelopmental outcome at 2 years for preterm children born at 22 to 34 weeks’ gestation in France in 2011: EPIPAGE-2 cohort study. bmj358, j3448. doi: 10.1136/bmj.j3448

Saigal, S., & Doyle, L. W. (2008). An overview of mortality and sequelae of preterm birth from infancy to adulthood. The Lancet371(9608), 261-269. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(08)60136-1