What to Expect When Your Baby is Born At 32 Weeks

The final months of pregnancy are full of prepping and planning. And, of course, planning is important. But be prepared: Many births don’t go according to plan.

For example, you might end up having a cesarean delivery (C-section) or other interventions that you weren’t planning on. Or you may find yourself with much less time to prepare if your baby decides to show up to the party earlier than expected!

About 11 percent of babies worldwide are born early (premature). This means that they’re born more than 3 weeks before their estimated due date. About 85 percent of these are born between 32 and 36 weeks of pregnancy.

But if your baby is born even more prematurely — say, at 32 weeks — they still have very good odds at being healthy with some supportive medical care. Here’s what you need to know about a baby born at 32 weeks.

Can a baby be born safely at 32 weeks?

Yes, a baby can safely be born at 32 weeks, but they may need specialized care to help support their development as they navigate their early days in the world.

A baby who’s born before week 37 of pregnancy is considered to be premature. However, during pregnancy, every week — and even every day — makes a difference in a baby’s growth and development. This is why premature babies are grouped into four stages:

  • late preterm, born between 34 and 36 weeks
  • moderate preterm, born between 32 and 34 weeks
  • very preterm, born between 25 and 32 weeks
  • extremely preterm, born before 25 weeks

If your baby reaches 32 weeks of gestation (time in the womb) and is born at 32 weeks, they’re moderate preterm. Babies born at 32 weeks have a survival rate as high as 95 percent. They also have very good chances of growing into healthy babies and children without any complications.

Babies who are born very preterm and extremely preterm have a higher risk of complications and health problems than a baby born at 32 weeks.

How healthy and developed your baby is at 32 weeks also depends on what kind of pregnancy you have. If you’re carrying twins or other multiples they may be smaller than if you’re carrying a singleton baby.

How developed is a baby born at 32 weeks?

At 32 weeks, babies still have a couple months to go before reaching their full birth weight, but they’re well developed. Your baby will look almost like a full-term baby, just smaller, thinner, and even more delicate.

They’ll have almost-there toenails and perhaps a few wisps of hair on their head. Most of the soft, downy hair (lanugo) that covered them earlier in the womb will have started falling off, but they’ll still be a little fuzzy.

They probably will not yet have fully formed fingernails. Their eyes, though developed, may be too sensitive to light to open just yet. By 32 weeks most babies are practicing breathing, and their lungs are in the final stages of development. Their skull and all their bones will still be very soft.

At 32 weeks, a baby may:

  • weigh almost 4 pounds
  • be between 16 and 17 inches long
  • have a head size (circumference) between 11 and 12 inches

How long will a baby born at 32 weeks need to be in the hospital?

How long your baby needs to stay in the hospital after they’re born at 32 weeks depends on several things.

After birth, your premature baby will be taken to a special care nursery or the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in the hospital where you gave birth.

Most babies born at 32 weeks of pregnancy have only a few temporary health issues and need to stay in the NICU for only a few days to a few weeks. After birth, your baby may need extra help learning and developing the skills needed for feeding, staying warm, and breathing on their own.

Babies born at 32 weeks will generally not yet be strong enough to breastfeed because their sucking muscles are still weak and uncoordinated. They’ll likely need to be tube-fed for a few weeks.

That said, receiving breast milk is especially important for preterm babies. Compared to preterm babies who receive formula, those who receive human milk typically have higher survival rates, shorter NICU stays, and fewer serious health complications.

Even if you weren’t planning to breastfeed, you may consider expressing milk to help nourish your premature baby. You may also consider donor milk.

Most babies born at 32 weeks don’t have breathing problems, but your doctors and nurses will make sure they’re breathing properly.

Before your baby can safely go home with you, your doctor will make sure they don’t have any other health problems and are growing and developing enough to do well without NICU care.

Before they’re discharged, your baby will be evaluated on their:

  • weight gain
  • ability to suck and swallow milk on their own
  • temperature regulation
  • eye development and sensitivity

Health issues and long-term outlook for babies born at 32 weeks

Babies born at 32 weeks might have some temporary health problems such as:

  • low birth weight
  • jaundice
  • hypothermia
  • feeding difficulties

Some long-term issues in babies born at 32 weeks might show up months to years later. These are not common, but can include slower development. In most cases, babies with learning or developmental delays catch up later in childhood with a little bit of extra help.

A 2017 medical study in France that followed 5,170 babies who were born between 22 to 34 weeks of pregnancy found that babies born at 32 to 34 weeks had very low risks of long-term health problems.

The researchers found that about 1 percent of babies born at 32 to 34 weeks had the neuromotor disorder cerebral palsy.

The same study tested 2,506 2-year-olds who were born prematurely. In the group born at 32 to 34 weeks of pregnancy, 36.2 percent scored slightly lower than average on a questionnaire that was used to test brain development.

While this means that some babies born at 32 weeks may have delayed learning development and skills in early childhood, and early intervention can have a significant impact in improving skills.

The takeaway

If your baby is born at 32 weeks, they have very good chances of being born healthy and developing just fine.

They’ll be considered premature, specifically moderately preterm, and will need extra medical care to make sure they’re healthy and growing normally before they can go home. Your baby may be in the hospital or NICU for several days to weeks.

In rare cases, a baby born at 32 weeks may have neurodevelopmental (brain and learning) delays. In most cases, they’ll catch up with some extra help during early childhood.

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