Long-term health effects of premature birth

Each year, about 1 in 10 babies in the United States is born prematurely. Premature birth is birth that happens too soon, before 37 weeks. Prematurity can cause problems for babies throughout their lives. The earlier a baby is born, the more likely he or she is to have health problems. Some of these problems may not show up for several years, even into adulthood.

Finding and treating health problems as early as possible – and preventing premature birth overall – can help babies lead longer, healthier lives.

Can premature birth affect a baby’s brain?  

Yes. Premature birth can lead to long-term intellectual and developmental disabilities for babies. They can cause a person to have trouble or delays in:

  • Physical development
  • Learning
  • Communicating or getting along with others
  • Taking care of himself/herself 

Some long-term disabilities caused by premature birth include:

  • Behavior problems, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety
  • Neurological disorders, like cerebral palsy, that affect the brain, spinal cord and nerves throughout the body
  • Autism, a group of disorders that affect a child’s speech, social skills and behavior  

Can premature birth affect a baby’s lungs?

Yes. Premature birth can cause a baby to have lung and breathing problems, including asthma and bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), a chronic lung disease that causes the lungs to grow abnormally or to be inflamed.

What other long-term health problems can premature birth cause?

  • Intestinal problems
  • Infections, including pneumonia (infection of the lungs) and meningitis (infection of the brain)
  • Vision problems
  • Hearing loss
  • Dental problems, including delayed tooth growth, changes in tooth color or teeth that grow crooked or out of place 

What kind of services and support are available for your baby?

Talk to your baby’s healthcare provider about medical services and treatments your baby may need. Depending on your child’s condition, he or she may need treatment early on or sometimes not until later in life.

Premature babies often need services that help with development and learning: 

  • Early intervention (EI) services are programs for children from birth to age 3 who have disabilities or developmental delays. These programs are usually free and provided by each state. They help children learn physical, thinking, communicating, social and self-help skills that normally develop before age 3. If you think your child may be having trouble with how he or she plays, learns, speaks or acts, tell your child’s provider.
  • Later on, your baby may need special education services. These are for children with disabilities ages 3 through 21. These services are provided by your school district. Contact your local school district to find out about services they offer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) program Learn the Signs. Act Early. offers tools and information for parents who think their child may have developmental delays. The website includes check lists, fact sheets and steps to take if you’re concerned about your child’s development. 

This content originally appeared on marchofdimes.org.