Premature birth is a common outcome to mothers neglecting their health during pregnancy, regardless of the form. Premature birth puts a child at risk because they haven’t had the proper gestational time in the womb to develop as they should. Advances in medical science have led to unprecedented survival rates among premature babies, and so the concern over premature birth has lost some of its luster among the general public. But there’s another side to premature birth that few people stop to consider.

Premature birth is associated with numerous developmental delays. (Rubin, 12-11-08; LVRJ, 11-13-09) Among these are learning disabilities, developmental delays or retardation, cerebral palsy, blindness, hearing loss, and other chronic conditions such as asthma. The more premature the birth, the higher the risk of problems of all kinds. If a baby is born too young, their vital organs and other tissues haven’t had the time to fully form. Such children frequently face a variety of health risks down the road related to their premature birth, from chronic conditions such as asthma and allergies to life-threatening problems such as heart failure.

Premature babies average 75 painful procedures in the first 14 days of life, most of the time with no medication given. (CBS Evening News, 7-1-08) Their young age and fragile state makes administering any type of pain medication or anesthesia extremely risky, so they go without. Many experts have raised concerns about the possible effects of hypersensitivity from exposing babies to such chronic and extreme pain so early in their life, and what we know from animal studies supports their concerns. (McEwen & Schmeck, 1994; Cook & Wellerman, 2004; Painter, 3/29/2010; Animal studies aren’t ideal, but their brains react similarly. They provide information that can’t be obtained from human studies, since slicing up a baby’s brain to examine the connections under a microscope isn’t a viable option.) Another concern is that preemies often end up in incubators for medical reasons with little human contact. So not only are they being subjected to pain, but they are dealing with it alone with little comforting. It’s also feared that the steroids used in preemies (important in building up their undeveloped lungs and beefing up overall development) may cause brain cell death. Studies in mice have shown irreversible brain damage in the area of the brain responsible for coordination and balance from such drugs. (Brophy-Marcus, 11-18-08)

So keep in mind that the risk for premature birth is not merely a benign inconvenience. Any behavior which increases a child’s risk for premature birth increases the chance that they will start life in a great deal of pain or with other related problems, and this early exposure to chronic pain can be as concerning as early exposure to abuse would be. Overall, 1 in 8 babies born in the U.S., or 12.5%, are born premature, at an additional health cost of more than $26 billion a year. (LVRJ, 11-13-08) The exact cause of this is unknown, but it’s safe to say that the high rates of premature births in the U.S. are owed in a large part to unhealthy habits among mothers, such as drug or tobacco use.