Premature babies

When a baby is born before the 37th week of pregnancy, it is defined as a premature or preterm baby.

Most pregnancies last 40 weeks but sometimes, babies are born earlier than expected.

Many premature babies are born between 32 and 36 weeks which is called moderately preterm or late preterm. However, some babies can be born before 32 weeks. These are known as very or extremely premature babies.

The more premature babies are, the less developed they will be at birth. This can mean they’ll need more medical support for their breathing, hearts, tummies, bowels, feeding and temperature control.

For roughly half of all premature births, there is no known cause. However, factors including a multiple pregnancy (twins or more), mothers’ age and smoking can increase the likelihood of prematurity.

Most very premature babies survive but many will have developmental problems.

Who does it affect?

Who does it affect?

  • Almost one in 10 babies, about 26,000, are born prematurely every year in Australia.
  • Roughly 5,000 of these babies are born very early before 32 weeks.
  • Very premature babies are three times more likely to develop disorders such as autism, ADHD or anxiety and over half will have a developmental impairment.
  • Twins are 65 per cent more likely and other multiples 98 per cent more likely to be born preterm than singleton babies.

Our premature baby research

Our premature baby research

Our Victorian Infant Brain Study (VIBeS) groups conduct some of the world’s largest brain imaging and developmental studies observing preterm children long-term. These enable us to understand factors and processes that contribute to the developmental problems many of these children experience. Based on this, we develop early intervention programs that aim to prevent or minimise developmental problems in preterm children.

Several of these studies have improved our understanding of how very preterm children develop and how this relates to their learning, memory and behaviour. Interventions including psychologist and physiotherapist home visits have led to fewer behavioural problems, better parental mental health, and socially disadvantaged adolescents having better motor outcomes (ability to perform actions).

VIBeS20 is now reviewing participants aged 20 comparing those born very preterm and full-term studying brain development, thinking skills including memory, attention and communication, mental health, physical health including heart health and certain genes.

Our neonatal research group is also striving to improve outcomes for preterm newborns  by working to generate new knowledge that helps lungs tackle breathing complications.

A treatment we helped pioneer is reducing the risk of premature babies developing the lung disease bronchopulmonary dysplasia. We’re now examining the treatment’s impact in the babies’ first two years.

Our vision

Our vision

Our goals are to predict the developmental outcomes for very premature babies and find ways to improve these outcomes and long-term quality of life for these children. We want to make it possible for premature babies to lead happy and healthy lives.