Women who have an otherwise healthy pregnancy may still end up giving birth early, while other women who have complications may have their baby right on time. Some problems during pregnancy may cause the mother, the baby, or both to become unwell enough that early delivery is the best option. Other times, even if the mother does everything right, there can still be complications late in the pregnancy that cause the baby to be born early. Preterm birth is any delivery prior to the 37th week of pregnancy.
About four out of five premature births are due to four common factors:
- Being pregnant with more than one baby at once (twins or more)
- Uterine bleeding
- Stress for the mother
- An infection in the mother’s uterus or elsewhere in the body
Women who have vaginal bleeding during pregnancy may also end up having a baby born at 34 weeks.
Some women have additional risks of having a baby early. Women who have had a previous preterm birth as well as those with less than 2 years between pregnancies are more likely to experience preterm delivery. Having a short cervix or a history of certain types of surgery on the uterus can also make you more likely to deliver before full term.
Some lifestyle habits may also result in a baby being born at 34 weeks or earlier. Smoking during pregnancy is one of the most common causes of preterm birth and can result in smaller lung capacity for the baby, as well as lower-than-average birth weight. Chronic stress on the mother is another risk factor.
Both of these conditions affect the baby’s ability to survive and thrive on their own and may lead to chronic health conditions. Medically underweight (a body mass index, or BMI, of lower than 18 before and during pregnancy) and obese women (BMI of 30 and higher) may also give birth before full term. Additionally, pregnant women who drink or use drugs while pregnant may have a premature baby.
The closer a baby is to full term, the better their chances of survival. By the 36th week, a baby’s body is fully formed, and they’re mostly just getting big enough to survive outside the womb. At 34 weeks, many of the baby’s bodily systems aren’t mature enough, especially the lungs. Lungs don’t reach their full formation until around 36 weeks.
Fortunately, the neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) at most hospitals are well-equipped to help a baby breathe on their own if they’re born at 34 weeks. Many hospitals have well-trained staff on hand to deliver a late-preterm baby and treat different health concerns. In fact, babies born between 31 and 34 weeks typically have a 95 percent survival rate depending on other health conditions.
Many new parents wonder what to expect with a baby born at 34 weeks. On average, a baby born at 34 weeks weighs about 5.2 pounds (2,377 grams) and is about 17.8 inches (45.6 centimeters) long. Preemies may look thin and fragile compared to full-term babies, and their stomachs and head may appear oversized for their small limbs. During the 36th to 40th weeks of pregnancy, your baby is rapidly gaining weight, which mostly accounts for the difference in the physical appearance of a 34-week-gestation baby and one born later.
By the 34th week, a baby’s skin thickens and takes on a pinkish hue. The baby’s skin tone may start becoming darker at this point. Babies born at 34 weeks still have lanugo, a soft, downy covering of hair on their backs, bodies, and limbs. This hair covering will naturally shed as a baby grows and is better able to regulate their body temperature, but expect premature babies born at 34 weeks to look a little fuzzy.
Some health concerns are immediately apparent in a baby born at 34 weeks, while others may not show up until later in the child’s life. For many babies, their birth weight at delivery plays an important role in their overall health later in life, although fast, professional medical treatment at delivery will help treat any preterm health complications.
The main health complications for babies born at 34 weeks of gestation include difficulty with lung capacity and breathing. Respiratory distress syndrome for preemies is more common because their lungs lack surfactant, which is a substance that allows the lungs to fully expand. While some babies grow to have no lingering respiratory issues, others may have a condition called bronchopulmonary dysplasia, which affects the lungs’ ability to fully expand. Other children may experience prolonged pauses in breathing (most commonly while sleeping), which is called apnea.
There are also a couple of common heart problems for babies born at 34 weeks. Low blood pressure is one, which may require intravenous fluids or blood transfusions. Another common heart problem for preterm babies is a heart murmur. Most commonly, these occur when there is a persistent opening between the aorta and the pulmonary artery. This hole often closes on its own within the baby’s first couple of years of life, but if it doesn’t and is left untreated, it may lead to heart failure or other complications.
The main health complications for babies born at 34 weeks of gestation include difficulty with lung capacity and breathing.
The earlier a baby is born, the greater the likelihood of bleeding in the brain. These hemorrhages may be mild; however, babies with more severe brain bleeding can have permanent brain damage.
Without the fat reserves that full-term babies develop in the last four weeks of gestation, babies born at 34 weeks may have a harder time regulating their body temperature, despite the coat of lanugo on their bodies. A low body core temperature, or hypothermia, can result. This, in turn, leads to breathing problems and low blood sugar levels, which means that the baby may use all their energy just to stay warm, leaving little energy for growth and development of the brain and lungs. It’s not unusual for NICUs to place preemies in an incubator and encourage the mother to nurse as often as possible.
Jaundice is a relatively common condition in many babies born at 34 weeks and occurs because the baby’s blood has excess bilirubin, a yellow-colored substance produced in the liver. Other blood problems for preterm babies include anemia, or a lower amount of red blood cells and insufficient iron.
The earlier a baby is born, the less developed their gastrointestinal tract is. Some preemies have damage to their bowel walls, which can lead to a complicating condition called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). This is a serious condition and develops after a baby begins feeding, usually after the first 24 hours of life. Mothers are encouraged to breastfeed, as babies who receive breast milk exclusively have a lower risk of developing NEC.
Long-term complications for a preterm baby can vary. Some potential complications include cerebral palsy, a muscle disorder, and learning/developmental disabilities, including anything from delays in hitting milestones to autism. Early interventions such as speech therapy and working with your child’s pediatrician to help your child with fine and gross motor skills may help with learning and development.
Some infants develop vision problems stemming from swollen blood vessels that overgrow the retina. These engorged blood vessels may scar the retina and pull it out of position. This retinal detachment can lead to full or partial blindness if left untreated. Hearing problems and some dental issues that can cause speech delays are also common in premature babies.
Parents may wonder how long they will stay in the hospital with a baby born at 34 weeks. This depends on the birth weight of the baby and their overall health. Babies born to mothers who smoke, drink, or abuse drugs are more likely to be born prematurely and to have a higher instance of health problems stemming from the early birth.
Initial treatment of preterm, lower-birth-weight babies begins with moving them into the NICU of the hospital. Expect to see your baby in an incubator or warmer and possibly in a contained crib that reduces their exposure to germs in the air and through touch. Premature babies may have a compromised immune system and be more likely to contract illnesses than full-term babies. Breastfed babies receive antibodies from their mother’s breast milk and may more easily ward off diseases. While breastfeeding is entirely the choice of the mother, many hospitals will have a lactation consultant on hand to help you begin nursing.
Babies born to mothers who smoke, drink, or abuse drugs are more likely to be born prematurely and to have a higher instance of health problems stemming from the early birth.
Once your baby leaves the hospital, it’s important to feed them often to help them gain weight. Work with your child’s pediatrician to monitor their growth and development, making note of any delays in hitting development milestones. If your baby develops long-term complications from preterm birth, you can work with a specialist to treat and manage their conditions.
A healthy lifestyle and plenty of self-care during pregnancy is the easiest way to reduce your chances of preterm delivery. Eat nutritious foods and drink plenty of water, avoiding soda and processed sugar as much as possible. Don’t smoke, drink, or use drugs during pregnancy.
If you’re pregnant with more than one baby, follow your obstetrician’s instructions carefully. Multiple births tend to deliver earlier, and you may be advised to go on full or partial bed rest. If you have other risk factors with this pregnancy, you may also be prescribed certain medications to prevent early labor.
Advances in medicine have reduced infant mortality in premature babies substantially. If your baby is born at 34 weeks, there are many options for treatment to help them enjoy a healthy, long life. In 2018, 1 out of every 10 infants born in the United States were born before full term.