According to the World Health Organization (WHO), preterm babies are born alive before 37 weeks of pregnancy is completed.
Sub-categories of preterm birth are:
- Extremely preterm (<28 weeks)
- Very preterm (28 to <32 weeks)
- Moderate to late preterm (32 to <37 weeks).
Worldwide, every year, an estimated 15 million babies are born prematurely. Preterm birth complications are the leading cause of death in children younger than five years.
Across 184 countries, 5% to 18% of babies are born prematurely.
Situation in SA
A 2012 Health24 article states that more than eight out of 100 babies are born prematurely in South Africa.
According to the Western Cape Government, risk factors of preterm birth include:
- Having a previous premature birth
- Multiple miscarriages or abortions
- Pregnancy with twins, triplets or other multiples
- Poor nutrition
- Not gaining enough weight during pregnancy
- Some infections, particularly of the amniotic fluid and lower genital tract
- Chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure
- Being underweight or overweight before pregnancy
- Physical injury or trauma
Because premature babies are removed abruptly from the protection of the womb, they are subjected to short-term challenges like temperature instability, feeding and breathing difficulties and jaundice. An immature nervous system may cause emotional and behavioural challenges.
Long-term challenges may include visual, hearing and motor challenges, poor emotional and self-regulatory abilities and later, possible behavioural and learning challenges.
The following people went on to become famous despite being born prematurely:
1. Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder (Steveland Hardaway Judkins) was born six weeks premature in 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan, USA. The stunted growth of blood vessels in the back of his eyes caused his retinas to detach. The oxygen he received in his incubator made the problem worse, leaving him blind.
2. Wayde van Niekerk
When Wayde van Niekerk won South Africa’s first gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, few people knew that he was born prematurely at 29 weeks in 1992. He weighed a little over 1kg and doctors said he could end up being disabled.
3. Sir Winston Churchill
Churchill was born two months prematurely in 1874 in a bedroom at Blenheim Palace (a monumental English country house in Woodstock, Oxfordshire) after his mother took a fall.
4. Albert Einstein
Physicist and Nobel Prize Winner Albert Einstein was born prematurely in Ulm, Germany in 1879. Einstein’s mother was apparently worried that her infant’s head was oddly shaped and too large. Initially his development was slow, but picked up rapidly after the age of nine.
5. Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin, the originator of the theory of evolution, born in 1809, was also a preemie.
6. Napoleon Bonaparte
French emperor from 1804 to 1814, Napoleon I was born prematurely in 1769 on the island of Corsica. His short stature did not stand in his way of becoming a military genius.
7. Michael J Fox
Another preemie baby is American actor Michael J Fox, best known for his roles in Spin City and Back to the Future. Born in 1961, Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1998.
Image credits: iStock & Wikimedia Commons