Long-term health effects of preterm birth

Video file

Key Points

Preterm birth is birth that happens too soon, before 37 weeks of pregnancy.

Babies born preterm may have more health problems at birth and later in life than babies born later.

Preterm babies can have long-term intellectual and developmental disabilities and problems with their lungs, brain, eyes and other organs.

Finding and treating health problems as early as possible can help preterm babies lead healthier lives.

How can preterm birth affect a baby’s health?

Preterm birth is birth that happens too soon, before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Babies born this early may have more health problems or need to stay in the hospital longer than babies born later. These preterm babies may need special medical care in a newborn intensive care unit (also called NICU). Each year, about 1 in 10 babies in the United States is born preterm.

Prematurity can cause problems for babies throughout their lives. The earlier a baby is born, the more likely they are 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 preterm birth when possible—can help babies lead longer, healthier lives.

How can preterm birth affect a baby’s brain? 

Preterm birth can lead to long-term intellectual and developmental disabilities for babies. These are problems with how the brain works. They can cause a person to have trouble or delays in:

  • Physical development
  • Learning
  • Communicating
  • Taking care of themselves
  • Getting along with others

 Some long-term conditions linked to preterm birth include:

  • Cerebral palsy (also called CP). This is a group of conditions that affects the parts of your brain the brain that control your muscles. This can cause problems with movement, posture (standing up straight) and balance.
  • Behavior problems. Some studies show that preterm babies may be more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (also called ADHD) than babies born on time. ADHD is a condition that makes it hard for a person to pay attention and control his behavior.
  • Mental health conditions. Preterm babies may be more likely to have anxiety or depression later in life. Depression is a medical condition in which strong feelings of sadness last for a long time and interfere with your daily life. It needs treatment to get better. Anxiety is when you feel worried or fearful and these feelings affect your daily life, like school work, jobs or relationships with others.
  • Neurological disorders. These conditions affect the brain, spinal cord and nerves throughout the body.

How can preterm birth affect a baby’s lungs?

Preterm birth can cause a baby to have lung and breathing problems, including:

  • Asthma. This is a health condition that affects the airways and can cause breathing problems.
  • Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (also called BPD). This is a lung disease that can develop in preterm babies as well as babies who have treatment with a breathing machine. BPD can cause swelling and scarring in the lungs. Babies with BPD are more likely to get lung infections like pneumonia. Over time, the lungs usually get better, but a preterm baby may have asthma-like symptoms or long-term lung damage throughout his life.

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

Preterm birth can lead to these health problems:

  • Dental problems. Preterm babies may have delayed tooth growth, changes in tooth color or teeth that grow crooked or out of place as they get older.
  • Hearing loss. Children born preterm are more likely to have hearing loss than children born on time.
  • Infections. Preterm babies often have trouble fighting off germs because their immune systems are not fully developed. This means they can get infections more easily. Infections can still be a problem as your baby grows.
  • Problems with the intestines. These problems may be caused by necrotizing entercolitis (also called NEC). This is a common but very serious disease that can affect a newborn baby’s intestines. Intestines are long tubes that are part of your digestive system. While most babies with NEC get better, some may have ongoing intestinal problems, like scarring or blockage in the intestine. Surgery may be needed to treat these problems. Some babies who’ve had surgery to remove part of the intestine may have trouble absorbing nutrients from food. 
  • Vision problems, like retinopathy of prematurity (also called ROP). This is an eye disease that affects many premature babies. ROP happens when a baby’s retinas don’t fully develop in the weeks after birth. The retina is the nerve tissue that lines the back of the eye. ROP usually affects both eyes. Children born prematurely are more likely than children born on time to have vision problems.

Last reviewed: February 2024