When a baby is born at 32 weeks, they are considered "moderately preterm." It is generally safe to deliver at 32 weeks and babies born at this gestational age have a high rate of survival and good long-term outcomes. If there is a possibility that you or your partner will deliver before reaching full-term, it can be helpful to prepare yourself for what to expect for during the early stages.
What Happens When a Baby is Born at 32 Weeks
In the United States, nearly 10% of babies born each year are preterm. Of these, about 1.5% are born between 32 and 33 weeks gestation, according to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Babies born at 32 weeks have a 95% survival rate and have a very good chance of growing and developing through infancy and childhood without serious complications or disabilities. In fact, studies show that these babies have a lower risk of developing health complications than babies born much earlier, but they may still be at a slightly higher risk of learning disabilities and behavioral problems than babies born at full term.
But when a baby is born at 32 weeks, he or she will need a few weeks of specialized medical care in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) or special care nursery at the hospital. At this stage, they still need some time to develop. Doing so in the NICU allows specialized care providers to watch your baby and ensure that all goes well.
Development at 32 Weeks
By 32 weeks of gestation, your baby has fully developed all of his or her body parts and major organs, except for the lungs, which are still maturing. Babies are in the final stages of development and would spend the next couple of months in utero practicing breathing, suckling to prepare for feeding, and putting on fat.
Appearance at 32 Weeks
At this stage of development, your baby is basically a tinier version of a full-term newborn.
A baby born at 32 weeks:
- Weighs roughly 3.5 to 4.5 pounds
- Is between 16.5 to 17.5 inches in length
- Has a head circumference between 11.4 inches to 12 inches
- Has fingernails, toenails, and wisps of hair (peach fuzz)
- Has opaque skin (no longer transparent) because your baby has started putting on brown fat to help regulate their body temperature
- May be covered in lanugo - a downy, soft hair that covers the baby's skin and begins to fall off between 33 to 36 weeks
- Can open and close their eyes; may have sensitivity to light
The last stretch of the third trimester of pregnancy is the time your baby gains body fat and his or her internal systems finish maturing. Babies who are born moderately preterm may have wrinkly, thin skin and have trouble regulating their body temperature until they put on more weight. By about 32 weeks, your baby has just begun the plumping-up stage and will often more than double his weight by week 40.
Contractions at 32 Weeks: Braxton Hicks or Preterm Labor?
By 32 weeks, many pregnant people have begun experiencing the occasional uterine contraction. Often these are Braxton Hicks contractions - non-labor contractions that are completely normal and are not a sign that your baby is on the way (yet). But it can be helpful to understand the difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and preterm labor so that you can tell the difference when you start to experience symptoms.
Braxton Hicks Contractions
Braxton Hicks contractions are also called false labor, as they often trick a pregnant person into thinking labor has begun. In truth, these are a sign that your uterus is preparing for labor and are not a sign that your baby will be born preterm. Braxton Hicks contractions:
- Are infrequent
- Are painless
- Are patternless
- Can be uncomfortable, but typically go away when you move around
- Do not worsen over time
- Go away after an hour or less
- Last anywhere from 15-30 seconds but can last up to 2 minutes
Each mother may have individual experiences with these false labor symptoms, which is why BabyCenter.com has forums where mothers can compare their pregnancy woes. False labor symptoms can be different for everyone, so if you are concerned about your Braxton Hicks contractions or question whether they are labor contractions, contact your doctor or midwife.
Signs of Preterm Labor
It can be helpful to be aware of the signs of preterm labor to know what to watch out for as you go through your third trimester of pregnancy. Signs and symptoms of preterm labor include:
- Belly cramps that may feel like period cramps
- Constant dull pain in your lower back
- More than four labor contractions in an hour
- Pressure in your pelvis or lower abdomen
- Vaginal discharge becomes more watery, bloody, or has bloody mucus
- Your water breaks (water gushing or dripping from the vagina)
Contact your doctor or midwife if you have any signs of preterm labor. Since it can be difficult to distinguish false labor from true labor, your healthcare provider may advise you to rest and drink plenty of fluids or may ask you to come in for an appointment to check to make sure you're not in labor.
Care for a Baby Born at 32 Weeks
Your baby has a high chance of survival when born at this stage. Babies born at 32 weeks usually do not have long-term complications and grow up to be healthy and happy.
Newborn Care at 32 Weeks
Each newborn is different. Depending on whatlevel of care your baby needs, they may be:
- Taken to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) immediately after birth for close monitoring and medical care
- Placed in an incubator to help them regulate their body temperature
- Hooked up to machines to monitor their respiration (breathing), heart rate and body temperature
- In need of a ventilator to help them breathe
- Fed through a tube or receive fluids through an intravenous line until they can feed on their own
Potential Health Complications
According to the Mayo Clinic, babies born at 32 weeks are more at risk of certain health complications than babies born full-term, such as:
- Anemia: Blood transfusions can help increase red blood cell count.
- Infection: They may receive antibiotics or other medications to prevent or fight off infections
- Jaundice: They may need bilirubin light exposure therapy.
Some premature babies may be born with or develop more serious health complications (e.g., intestinal obstruction) and require surgery or other medical interventions. Rest assured that your baby is in good, capable hands when they are cared for in the NICU.
Your baby will need to remain in NICU care for a few weeks after their birth and may not go home until his or her original due date. Some babies who were born with health problems or who spent weeks on a ventilator or oxygen therapy may stay past their original due date.
Hospital staff will want to make sure your baby can regulate his or her own temperature, breastfeed or bottle-feed well, and has put on weight since birth. Before your baby is discharged from the hospital, the hospital care team will want to see:
- Baby can regulate their body temperature and maintain a good temperature for 24 to 48 hours
- Baby can consistently suckle and swallow milk from a breast or bottle without tube feedings
- Your baby has steadily put on weight
Having a baby in the NICU can be a stressful, emotional time for new parents. You may feel anxious about your baby's development and growth since they missed out on critical weeks of gestational development. The good news is, medical advancements have allowed preterm babies to receive world-class care that helps them grow, develop, and thrive both in the hospital and at home.
Bringing Home a Baby Born at 32 Weeks
Doctors and nurses at the hospital will be there to answer all of your questions and help you work through your feelings and experiences while the baby is in the NICU. They can also answer all of your questions and address concerns about bringing baby home.
You will also get guidelines and printed information to monitor your baby's progress. This free printable preemie growth chart may also be helpful as you track your preemie's growth. After your baby is home, they will be closely monitored by their pediatrician throughout infancy and childhood to track their health, growth, and development.
Caring for your baby may be exhausting and nerve-wracking at times. Be sure to carve out time for self-care so you can stay healthy. Accept any help your family and friends offer, and call your pediatrician with any questions you have about your baby's development. Most importantly, remember to cherish the time you have with your baby now that he is home, and feel confident that your baby will grow into a happy, healthy child.