A delivery is considered to be early-term when the baby is born between 37 and 39 weeks. Full-term deliveries occur between 39 and 41 weeks. Meanwhile, preterm delivery is defined as birth before week 37 of pregnancy.
Gestational age is determined using the first day of your last period as reference. In reality, conception usually occurs approximately 14 days after your cycle begins. That means that during the first two weeks of your pregnancy term, you weren’t actually pregnant yet.
Preterm deliveries can be divided into three categories depending on how far you are from your due date:
- Late preterm — babies born between weeks 34 and 36 of gestation
- Moderately preterm — babies born between weeks 32 and 34 of gestation
- Very preterm — babies born before 32 weeks of gestation
- Extremely preterm — babies born at or before 25 weeks of gestation
A full-term baby will weigh approximately 7 pounds (3.17 kilograms), but babies born at 36 weeks may weigh less than this. At 36 weeks, your baby could weigh anywhere between 5.7 to 6.8 pounds (2.6 to 3.1 kilograms). The size of a baby born at 36 weeks could range from 17.5 to 19 inches (44.5 to 48.3 centimeters) long.
Every late preterm baby is different, and some may not look premature at all. These are some of the most common characteristics of a preterm baby:
- Small size
- Shiny, translucent, red, thin skin
- Decreased muscle tone
- Weak crying
- Scarce body fat
- Underdeveloped genitals
- Scarce hair
- Abundant lanugo or body hair
There are many factors that could lead to preterm delivery, including maternal health conditions and lifestyle factors. In some cases, the cause of preterm birth remains unknown. These are some of the risk factors that can lead to premature birth:
- Cervical incompetence, where a weak cervix dilates too early
- Uterine anatomical abnormalities
- Previous history of preterm deliveries
- Chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, kidney disease, or diabetes
- Having had your last baby less than a year before getting pregnant again
- Urinary tract infection
- Amniotic membrane infection, also called chorioamnionitis
- Lack of prenatal care
- Use of tobacco or drugs, such as cocaine or amphetamines
- Pregnancy with multiples
- Age of the mother (younger than 16 or older than 35 years old)
- Poor nutrition before or during pregnancy
Risks are lower for babies born at 36 weeks than for more premature babies. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any possible complications associated with premature babies born at 36 weeks.
When a baby is premature, it means that their organs didn’t have time to mature completely before being born. Premature babies can sometimes experience long-term health problems.
Late preterm babies are more likely to experience development delays, which can affect them later in life, than full-term babies. These complications can include:
- Special education needs
- Delayed language or motor development
- Social or behavioral problems
- Cognitive impairment
- Poor concentration
However, babies born at 36 weeks have a lower rate of complications when compared to more preterm babies.
Preterm babies could require assistance to carry out tasks such as breathing, eating, or regulating their temperature. Complications for preterm babies can include:
- Respiratory distress
- Temperature instability
- Feeding problems
- Necrotizing enterocolitis (intestinal infection)
- Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
- Neonatal sepsis
- Patent ductus arteriosus (an opening between major blood vessels in the heart)
If labor begins prematurely and can’t be delayed, your health care team will prepare you for a high-risk delivery. Not all babies will need to stay in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). You may be moved to a center that has a NICU just in case.
A baby born at 36 weeks will need to be monitored at least during their first 24 hours of life. Their care will be decided depending on their symptoms, and a medical team will assess their condition frequently. This will also allow health care providers to act quickly in case any treatment is needed.
Preterm babies could require different medical procedures to help stabilize them, including:
- Ventilation support and/or oxygen
- Postponing bathing until their temperature is stable
- Temperature regulation
- Monitoring signs of infection or sepsis
- Monitoring signs of hypoglycemia
- Frequent, ongoing feedings
- Dedicated assistance by a lactation consultant
- Positioning support
If a newborn baby is transferred to another institution or a higher level of care, it’s important to be on the lookout for signs of postpartum depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Going home without your baby can be a distressing experience, and it’s understandable if you need help to cope with your feelings.
Late preterm babies should be seen by a primary care provider one to two days after they’re discharged from the hospital. This will allow the doctor to assess how your baby is adapting to life outside the hospital, evaluate their condition, and check test results if necessary.
There are several strategies that can help reduce the risk of preterm birth. These include:
- Avoiding exposure to cigarette smoke during pregnancy
- Managing chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and nutrition problems before getting pregnant
- Aiming for a longer amount of time between pregnancies
- Being as healthy as possible before pregnancy
- Getting adequate prenatal care as early as possible and until your due date
Preterm babies aren’t fully prepared to face life outside the womb, which is why they must be monitored closely after birth and beyond. Babies who are born at 36 weeks gestation can face different challenges, and it’s important to be aware of what you can expect.
Maintaining your own health during pregnancy and getting appropriate prenatal care can help you prevent preterm birth and future complications for you and your baby.