If your baby was premature and you haven't seen her yet, you should know that she may not look exactly like what you expected. Here are some things to know about your premature baby's development.

The Premature Baby Development Process

Even though your baby may be tiny and still in the NICU, she's already a special, unique person with her own personality. You may already notice that she looks like her parents or siblings.
It's going to take some time for your baby to grow and develop. The best things you can do right now are take care of yourself and spend time with your baby, talking to her, touching her and giving her the love she needs to grow strong.

» Premature Baby Size and Weight
» Premature Baby Skin
» Premature Baby Facial Features
» Premature Baby Body Hair
» Premature Baby Fingernails and Toenails
» Premature Baby Bones
» Premature Baby Muscle Tone and Reflexes
» Premature Baby Genitals
» Premature Baby Sleep Patterns and Crying
» Premature Baby Senses

Premature Baby Size and Weight

Premature babies are naturally smaller than full-term babies. Many weigh less than two pounds. You may be shocked and alarmed at how tiny and fragile she seems.

During the last four weeks of pregnancy, a full-term baby gains a pound or so each week. The premature baby misses out on this baby fat. The lack of fat filling out the skin folds gives a premature baby a wrinkled appearance and can make her fingers, toes and nose appear disproportionately long. As the fat layer develops, this look will disappear, and your baby will look more filled out.

During the first few days of life, your baby may lose a few ounces. This is normal. It happens with full-term babies, too. After that, she'll begin to gain weight more steadily. Her weight gain may fluctuate, losing an ounce or two some days. The rate at which your baby gains weight helps the NICU staff tell how fast she's getting stronger.

» Return to Top


Premature Baby Skin

A very premature baby is born with a thick, white coating covering her body, called vernix. After this is washed off, the baby's skin is red and wrinkled and may appear almost transparent with tiny veins visible below the skin's surface.

Premature babies of all ethnic groups have the same dusky-red skin color when they are born. Their natural skin color develops over time. Eventually, your baby will have the creamy, rosy look of full-term babies.

» Return to Top


Premature Baby Facial Features

Your baby's facial features are well developed, except for her outer ears, which are still very soft and limp. They may lie flat against her head and when they are folded over they may not spring back. As your baby continues to develop, her ears will form a firm layer of tissue that makes them look like those of a full-term baby.

» Return to Top


Premature Baby Body Hair

Since the 20th week of gestation, your baby's hair has been growing. By the time of her premature birth, it may cover her head. The hair will probably be very fine.

Your baby may or may not have eyebrows and eyelashes. She may, however, have a light cover of hair on much of her body. This fetal hair, called "lanugo," may be quite heavy (especially around the shoulders), or it may merely be a light peach fuzzy-like covering. This hair usually disappears in a few days or weeks.

» Return to Top


Premature Baby Fingernails and Toenails

Even the very premature baby has fingernails and toenails, which usually reach the ends of the fingertips or toes by 35 weeks of gestation.

» Return to Top


Premature Baby Bones

A premature baby's bones are very soft and easily molded, especially the bones of the skull. Before a baby is born, amniotic fluid surrounds her head and exerts equal pressure on all sides. But once she is born, her nice rounded head begins to flatten against the firm surfaces on which she lies. This elongation and flattening of the skull bones are temporary, and the head begins to round out as the baby develops.

» Return to Top


Premature Baby Muscle Tone and Reflexes

Like other babies, your baby will most likely stretch, yawn, and move her arms and legs. But because she lacks muscle tone, she is very limp and flexible.

In fact, some premature babies like to sleep with their feet tucked up next to their heads. While this may look uncomfortable to you, it may be a position your baby enjoyed while still in your womb.

You may also see your baby stiffen suddenly and then go limp. This is likely to happen because her nervous system isn't fully developed yet.

Your baby may have a gripping reflex in her fingers, but is too weak to maintain the grip when lifted by her hands. You may also see her arms and legs flail about with lots of jerks. This, too, is normal for a premature baby. As she matures, her movements will become smoother and more controlled.

» Return to Top


Premature Baby Genitals

Both premature boys and girls have immature genitals, which may look unusual compared to those of a full-term baby. Your baby's sex organs may look larger than average. You can expect them to look more in proportion in a few weeks.

» Return to Top


Sleep Patterns and Crying

Expect your baby to sleep most of the time-as much as 15-22 hours a day at first. She may have a hard time being alert, but already some of her responses are like those of a full-term baby.

She cries for the same reasons all babies cry. You'll be able to see her cry, but you won't be able to hear her if she's on a special breathing machine called a "ventilator." This is because the tube from the machine blocks her vocal cords.

» Return to Top


Premature Baby Senses

You may wonder if your premature baby can see and hear. Right now, she hears better than she sees. Don't worry: her sight will improve in time.

Her hearing is a bit more advanced. You should talk to your baby. She's already getting to know your voice. It probably won't take her long to learn to respond to it. Talking to her in a calm, soothing voice will comfort her.

She can also sneeze, hiccup, smile, and may even suck her thumb, skills acquired before birth.

Your baby also knows the difference between pleasure and pain. She may be calmed by your gentle touch, being held and rocked, or being swaddled in a warm blanket. Many premature babies like to be covered or firmly wrapped in a blanket.

Even a very premature baby can taste the difference between something sweet and something salty. Like most children, she tends to prefer the sweet.

A full-term baby has a sense of smell so well developed that she can recognize her mother by scent alone. No one knows for sure what a premature baby can smell, but some nurseries place an article of the mother's clothing in the baby's incubator in hopes that it will give a sense of her mother's comforting presence.

» Return to Top