What Are the Odds of Survival for a Premature Baby?

Are you in the high-risk category for having a premature birth? Maybe you’re pregnant and running through all the different scenarios in your head? If yes, you’re not alone. Many women go through the same thing, wondering and worrying about the birth to come and hoping everything will be fine. If that’s you, and you’re curious about the survival rates of preemies, read on. We have some relatively good news for you below that should set your mind at ease.

Are you in the high-risk category for having a premature birth? Maybe you’re pregnant and running through all the different scenarios in your head? If yes, you’re not alone. Many women go through the same thing, wondering and worrying about the birth to come and hoping everything will be fine. If that’s you, and you’re curious about the survival rates of preemies, read on. We have some relatively good news for you below that should set your mind at ease.

Premature Births are Quite Common in the United States

Did you know that 1 out of every 10 births in the U.S. is a premature birth? It’s true. A whopping 10% of babies come into the world too early, putting them (and their mommas) at risk for various health problems and challenges. In other words, you are definitely not alone if you’re at high risk of having a preemie.

That may not sound like great news, but, in fact, it is. The reason being is simple; practice and preparedness. The thing is, so many babies are being born prematurely that doctors, nurses, and NICUs have massive amounts of experience handling them. That practice and experience have led to many advancements in preemie care, substantially increasing survival rates. 

In short, because so many babies are born prematurely, doctors, nurses, and NICUs have the experience, knowledge, and technology to help many more of them survive and make it home safe and sound.

The Earlier They Arrive, The More Difficult Surviving Will Be

Here’s a fact; the earlier a preemie is born, the harder it will be for them to survive. (Yes, that’s not a comforting fact, but it’s true.) That’s why your doctor(s) will do everything they can to keep your baby in your belly as long as possible. They know that even an extra week can make a massive difference in the viability of your baby and their chance of survival outside in the real world.

Indeed, each week of gestation is essential as a fetus’s body is rapidly maturing and changing inside its momma’s belly. Their lungs, for example, are creating surfactant so that they can breathe in life-giving oxygen. Their skin is getting stronger, and fat is being stored to help them control their body temperature. Even their suck and swallow reflexes are maturing so that, after they arrive in our crazy world, they can latch on and start sucking down breastmilk (or formula).

If they arrive before these changes occur, it can be challenging for them to survive, especially if they were extremely preterm (26 weeks or earlier). So, again, your doctors will do all they can to make sure your baby stays inside your safe, warm belly as long as possible, if only to reduce their risk(s) once they do arrive.

What Does Periviable Mean?

While you likely know what the term “premature” means, you might also have heard the term “periviable” and have wondered what, exactly, your docs and nurses are discussing. Periviable means that a fetus is barely able to survive outside of the womb. It’s the earliest stage of maturity of a fetus but, in most cases, isn’t sufficient for them to survive, unfortunately. 

Periviability occurs between 20 and 26 weeks, a window of time that’s extremely risky for a baby to be born. Statistically speaking, for example, the chance of a preemie surviving if they’re born before 24 weeks of gestation is less than 50%. Unfortunately, many of the preemies who do survive will often face a lifetime of health problems. For example:

  • They won’t have brown fat under their skin, which will be remarkably delicate and thin and can’t keep them warm.
  • Their eyes will still be closed and highly susceptible to bright light. This could lead to vision problems and, in some cases, blindness.
  • At 24 weeks, their lungs are just starting to develop. Thus, they won’t be able to breathe on their own in most cases.
  • While their ears are fully formed, their eardrums are extremely sensitive. Being born at 24 weeks can often cause hearing problems and even deafness.
  • Issues with their underdeveloped brain and nervous system can cause cerebral palsy, behavioral issues, and learning problems later in life.

In short, getting your unborn baby to stay inside your belly at least until 26 weeks is the goal doctors will shoot for (if not longer, of course). Their chance of surviving will increase dramatically if they do.

Survivability Statistics Week by Week

Below are the statistics and numbers for survivability based on the number of weeks a fetus remains in the womb. They’re hard and cold and don’t tell the whole story, but they will help you understand the risks a bit better.

  • Babies Born Before 24 Weeks- Less than 50%
  • Babies born AT 24 weeks- 68%
  • Babies born at 26 weeks- 89%
  • Babies born at 28 weeks- 80 to 90% (Some studies report rates even higher than this.)
  • Babies born at 30 to 32 weeks- 99%
  • Babies born at 34 to 36 weeks- Almost 100%
  • Babies born at 37 to 39 weeks- Almost 100%

One interesting fact to note is that the definition of prematurity has changed as of late. While 36 weeks used to be the cut-off point for prematurity, that’s been raised to 39 weeks. The reason is that doctors and nurses were still seeing health problems and challenges in babies born between 39 and 40 weeks of gestation. 

Many websites haven’t updated the numbers as of yet. However, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM) define a full-term pregnancy as one that lasts between 39 weeks, 0 days, and 40 weeks 6 days. They updated these numbers after years of research showed that every single week of pregnancy is essential for a fetus’ development

Last Words

The good news today is that, with all the advancements in medicine and technology, more premature babies are surviving today than ever before. Still, the longer your precious preemie stays in your belly, the better. Every week their body is maturing, developing, and getting ready for life in this big, crazy world of ours. As a mom-to-be, doing everything you can to prevent premature birth, and following your doctor’s advice, is the best thing you can do for your unborn child.

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