Twenty-four weeks. That's widely considered the earliest point in a pregnancy when a baby can be born and still have a chance of surviving outside the womb. It's also the point at which some pregnant women -- especially those considered high-risk -- feel they can breathe a small sigh of relief.
But as a new study discovered, it's possible for some babies born at 22 weeks to pull through with just a few health problems. The odds are heavily stacked in favor of very early preemies who receive medial treatments, like ventilation support; doses of surfactant, which helps keep still-developing lungs from collapsing; and intubation to open up the airway. (Just how much and which kinds of treatment a very premature baby receives depends on the parents and the neonatal unit's policies and offerings.)
The study, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, examined the care of some 5,000 babies born between 22 and 27 weeks at 24 hospitals supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The findings show that infants born at 22 weeks who didn't receive any medical treatments died. Meanwhile, 18 of the 78 babies who received treatments survived. Though six of them had major issues like blindness, deafness and cerebral palsy, seven were free of moderate or severe health issues by the time they were young toddlers. The picture was brighter for babies who made it to 23 weeks gestation. Doctors treated 542 of the 755 preemies, and roughly half of the ones who lived went on to have no major health issues, according to the study.
Of course, do these findings make a parent's job any easier? Probably not. After all, the decision to try medical interventions on the slim chance your baby will survive is a personal one that's fraught with risk. But then again, I think there's some comfort in knowing that, should you decide to give doctors the go-ahead, there's a glimmer of hope that your preemie will grow and develop into a healthy child.
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Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow is a New York City-based writer and editor who traded in her Blackberry and Metro card for playdates and PB&J sandwiches—and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch her feisty, funny son grow up. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.
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Image of premature baby courtesy of Shutterstock