Survival rate of premature babies set to rise

4,500 babies born prematurely in Ireland every year

A premature baby lies in an incubator in the child care unit of a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

A premature baby lies in an incubator in the child care unit of a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters


The survival rate of premature babies born at 23 weeks is expected to continue rising in the coming years thanks to new medical practices and research, the Master of the Rotunda Hospital has said.

Around 4,500 babies are born prematurely in Ireland every year. Of these, babies born at less than 22 weeks are highly unlikely to survive.

This rises to a 19 per cent chance of survival at 23 weeks, 40 per cent chance at 24 weeks, 66 per cent chance at 25 weeks and 77 per cent chance at 26 weeks. A usual pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks and a premature birth is when a baby is born more than three weeks before its due date.

Despite the low chance of survival at 22-23 weeks, Master of the Rotunda, Professor Fergal Malone, has said advances in medicine means more premature babies are surviving at an earlier stage of gestation.

Speaking on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny show about Prematurity Week, Prof Malone said technological advances have made a huge difference to premature births in the last four to five years and that survival rates after 26 weeks have risen by 95 per cent. He added that survival between 24-26 weeks were also rising by 50 to 70 per cent week by week.

New practices such as delayed cord clamping, where the cutting of the umbilical cord is delayed, have made a big impact on survival rates, he said.

“Every last drop of blood is precious in a premature birth. Delaying cutting the umbilical cord can keep the blood flowing from the placenta and the extra flow can help.”

Other innovations such as steroid injections for mothers along with progesterone and magnesium infusions can greatly enhance survival rates for premature babies, he added.

Pre-term prevention clinic

The Rotunda has also recently launched a new pre-term birth prevention clinic where a specialist can review high-risk mothers and provide interventions to prevent recurrent prematurity. The hospital has also launched the “tentacles for tinies” project where volunteers craft specifically designed cuddly toys for premature infants in incubators.

“Preliminary experience would suggest that these special toys are associated with a significant calming effect on babies in the potentially stressful environment of a neonatal ICU,” said Prof Malone.

Prof Malone’s comments come as the debate around access to abortion continues ahead of the proposed referendum on the eighth amendment of the Constitution in 2018.

Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland Orla O’Connor called this week for full access to healthcare of women of all ages. She said the health and wellbeing of women and girls must be prioritised over “the forced continuation of a pregnancy”.

“Access to reproductive healthcare is fundamental to women’s family and life decisions and essential for women’s equality,” said Ms O’Connor.