Most babies born at or after 28 weeks survive in high-income countries, but in poor countries, survival rates can be as low as 10%
The World Health Organization (WHO) released new guidelines to increase the chances of survival and better health for premature (before 37 weeks of pregnancy) and small (under 2.5 kilograms) babies.
Kangaroo mother care — skin-to-skin contact with a caretaker — should begin immediately after birth and without an initial period in an incubator, the WHO guidelines said.
The number of premature births is rising and is now the leading cause of death of children under five.
Preterm infants frequently struggle to control their body temperature and often need medical help with breathing as they lack body fat. Prior instructions for these infants called for a brief separation from their primary caregiver. The child was first stabilised in an incubator for around three-four days.
The global health authority made a substantial departure from its own past recommendations and accepted clinical practices by issuing the guidelines November 15, 2022.
It also offered suggestions on how to support families of premature babies. They may experience extreme stress and suffering due to intense caregiving duties and concerns about their children’s health.
“Preterm babies can survive, thrive and change the world – but each baby must be given that chance,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general.
These guidelines show that improving outcomes for these tiny babies are not always about providing the most high-tech solutions but rather ensuring access to essential healthcare, Ghebreyesus added.
Premature birth is a pressing public health concern. It accounts for an estimated 15 million births yearly or more than one in ten births worldwide. Over 20 million babies have low birth weight, according to WHO.
There are still substantial differences in a preterm baby’s odds of surviving, depending on where they are born. Most babies born at or after 28 weeks survive in high-income countries, but in poor countries, survival rates can be as low as 10 per cent.
Preterm infants can be saved with practical and affordable measures like — high-quality prenatal, postpartum and postnatal care, prevention and treatment of common infections, kangaroo mother care and exclusive breastfeeding.
“The first embrace with a parent is not only emotionally important, but also absolutely critical for improving chances of survival and health outcomes for small and premature babies,” said Dr Karen Edmond, medical officer for newborn health at WHO.
These new guidelines are also applicable in high-income situations, even though they are particularly pertinent in poorer settings, lacking access to cutting-edge technology or even a steady supply of electricity.
“Through COVID-19 times, we know that many women were unnecessarily separated from their babies, which could be catastrophic for the health of babies born early or small,” Edmond said.
These new guidelines stress the need to provide care for families and preterm babies together as a unit and ensure parents get the best possible support through what is often a uniquely stressful and anxious time, Edmond added.
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