early arrivals:
premature labour and the first days with your tiny baby

As your pregnancy advances, you probably can’t wait to meet your new baby; but if your little one arrives early, it can be a scary time. Most premature babies grow up to be perfectly healthy children, and with as many as 10% of all babies arriving before 37 weeks, the neonatal team will be well set up to give you both the best care.

what causes premature birth?

It’s usual for twins and triplets to arrive early. With single pregnancies, there’s often no reason for premature labour. Some mums-to-be have ‘cervical incompetence’, a rather unkind name for a condition where the cervix can’t hold a full-term baby. Developing pre-eclampsia or an infection can also lead to early birth. If you’ve had a previous spontaneous premature birth, it could happen again.

going into premature labour

Often, a baby is early because of known medical reasons and in these cases, there may be a planned caesarean section or induced labour. If you go into early labour unexpectedly, you’ll be admitted to the nearest hospital with specialist neonatal facilities. You’ll have an ultrasound scan to check whether labour has started and an examination to check your cervix. You may also be offered a foetal fibronectin test, which checks for a protein secreted by your baby when they’re ready to arrive.

caring for special babies

Your tiny newborn will be looked after in either a special care baby unit (SCBU) or a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Your birth partner may be able to go with them, but if not ask the neonatal team to take a photo for you. As soon as your baby is stable, you can go and see them. Whether your baby is cared for in the SCBU or NICU depends on how premature they are and their health and strength. Some early babies (usually those born at 34–36 weeks) are strong enough to join you on the postnatal ward.

bonding with your premature baby in the SCBU or NICU

Your little baby will love to hear your familiar voice and feel your gentle touch. You may be able to have skin-on-skin cuddles or you may simply have to stroke their tiny hands for now.

When your baby gets stronger, you may be encouraged to try ‘kangaroo care’, where your little one is tucked snugly inside your clothes, giving skin-on-skin contact and heaps of reassurance (for you both).

This can be an exhausting time – try to look after yourself too, and leave the unit for regular meals and sleeps.

breastfeeding your premature baby

If you can breastfeed, your milk will provide your baby with additional protection against infection and nutrients.

You may need to express your milk at first and the midwives will support you with this. Being with your baby while you express will release loving hormones that help your milk flow. Alternatively, your baby could be fed with a special formula, and some hospitals have ‘breastmilk banks’, with milk donated by other mums.

It’s a harder journey for both of you, but with expert medical care and your love and encouragement, your little baby has every chance of growing and thriving.


For support and information visit