When premature labor develops and cannot be stopped, the health care team will prepare for a high-risk birth. The mother may be moved to a center that is set up to care for premature infants in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
After birth, the baby is admitted to a high-risk nursery. The infant is placed under a warmer or in a clear, heated box called an incubator, which controls the air temperature. Monitoring machines track the baby's breathing, heart rate, and level of oxygen in the blood.
A premature infant's organs are not fully developed. The infant needs special care in a nursery until the organs have developed enough to keep the baby alive without medical support. This may take weeks to months.
Infants usually cannot coordinate sucking and swallowing before 34 weeks gestation. A premature baby may have a small, soft feeding tube placed through the nose or mouth into the stomach. In very premature or sick infants, nutrition may be given through a vein until the baby is stable enough to receive all nutrition through the stomach. (See: Neonatal weight gain and nutrition)
If the infant has breathing problems:
- A tube may be placed into the windpipe (trachea). A machine called a ventilator will help the baby breathe.
- Some babies whose breathing problems are less severe receive continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) with small tubes in the nose instead of the trachea. Or they may receive only extra oxygen.
- Oxygen may be given by ventilator, CPAP, nasal prongs, or an oxygen hood over the baby's head.
Infants need special nursery care until they are able to breathe without extra support, eat by mouth, and maintain body temperature and body weight. Very small infants may have other problems that complicate treatment and require a longer hospital stay.