Babies born more than three weeks early face a variety of health issues. They are fragile and tiny and weigh only a few pounds, and parents of these premature babies worry greatly about their health.

While many grow up to be perfectly healthy, a new large-scale study reveals many will continue to experience health problems as they grow older.

"She did have some problems breathing and having her heart rate down and had to be on a caffeine drip for over a week," said Carla Ransom about her baby, Alexandra, who was born seven and a half weeks early.

"I was certainly very hyper-vigilant when bringing her home about whether she was breathing and when she was eating," she said.

A new study that looks at how premature babies do as they age, indicates some face an increased risk of mortality into childhood, compared to babies born full-term.

"Boys and girls born at the extreme premature range, which we consider twenty-two to twenty-seven weeks, had a much higher chance of mortality," said Dr. Geeta Swamy of the Duke University Medical Centre.

Swamy is part of a team of researchers who analyzed data from about sixty thousand premature births in Norway. They also looked at reproduction rates and found men born pre-term did worse than women.

"Men were less likely to reproduce if they were born prematurely as compared to women," she said.

Researchers say the reason for this is still unclear, but it's possible that medical problems or diminished cognitive ability could make it more difficult for survivors of pre-term birth to find a mate.

Congenital problems may also contribute to the increased risk of mortality. The study appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

For now, Carla focuses on one day at a time and says Alexandra, now six months old, is thriving and doing well.

"As a parent of a pre-term baby, the more information you have, the more comfortable you are," said Ransom.

The children in the study were born 20 to 30 years ago--are the consequences of prematurity less now?

Definitely neonatal intensive care treatments have improved in the last 20 years --this study also didn't take into account the contributing factors for prematurely which can affect outcome. But I think the message is still important, and that's despite improved treatments, being born prematurely today still comes with critical consequences, even more so for the tinier babies that are now being saved by modern medicine.

What causes early labor and premature babies?

There are lots of reasons. Some of the common risks for pre-term births include:

  • Smoking or other drug use
  • Being a young mother under 17 or older than 35
  • Being an underweight mother
  • Carrying twins or more babies
  • Having an infection such as an untreated urine infection
  • Having a job that involves extreme physical work

If you have a lot of contractions during your second and third trimester tell your health care provider. Many factors for preterm birth can be minimized or avoided by taking good prenatal care.