A staggering 1 in 10 babies in Australia is born prematurely. That’s approximately 8%-12% of all pregnancies.

Thankfully the survival rate for premature babies can be bright although the short and long term effects of entering the world too soon are very real.

Sadly, babies born pre-term are at risk of serious health problems. Even babies born as little as four to six weeks early can face breathing difficulties, feeding problems, jaundice, and brain function effects.

Researchers at the University of Western Australia spent years trying to develop ways to safely and successfully lower the rate of premature births in Australia. And now they have created a clever artificial womb that will hopefully improve the outcome for pre-term babies. Hurray for science!

Amazeballs: Artificial womb bringing hope for premature babies

The artificial womb is intended for severely premature babies that are on the border of viability (22-23 weeks).

At its core, our equipment is essentially a high-tech amniotic fluid bath combined with an artificial placenta. Put those together, and with careful maintenance what you’ve got is an artificial womb.” — explains Associate Professor Matt Kemp of the Women and Infants Research Foundation.

The end goal is to provide preterm babies the chance to better develop their lungs and other important organs before being brought into the world.”

So how does this womb-like vessel work, exactly?

The artificial womb, which so far has only been tested on premature lambs, surrounds the animal foetus in warm amniotic fluid. An artificial placenta incubates the foetus and mimicks the mother’s uterus, so the lungs and brain can mature.

Pretty darn clever, don’t you think?

Speaking about the results of the trial, Ass Prof Kemp says, “We’re getting better and better at maintaining extremely low-birth weight.

“We go for 48 hours and then a week and then two weeks and then we say ‘OK let’s start aiming to work with much smaller foetuses’. We’re quite excited about how this is going to play out over the next three to four years.”

artificial womb for premature babies

Showing how the artificial womb works

First lambs, next humans

Trials using babies are still a few years away, but earlier this year the new neonatal technology was used on a Perth baby who was born at just 23 weeks and weighed only 760g.

Initially considered “unviable”, with the parents’ consent doctors placed Leighton in a plastic bag filled with oxygen to help his lungs.

Babies born at 23 weeks, like Leighton, face a 20% to 35% chance of survival. However, the great news is little Leighton did survive thanks to the wonder of science and the clever folk from UWA.

Now, more than a year on, Leighton is a happy and healthy baby. And researchers from the University of Western Australia have taken the exciting step forward — filled the bag with amniotic fluid and connected it to an artificial placenta, replicating the womb for premature lambs.

premature babies

Premature births and health risks

Preterm birth is defined as birth before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy. 72% of pre-term babies are admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit, compared to 10% of full-term babies and 13% of post-term babies.

While the outcomes for premature babies can be positive, there are definite risks associated with being born too early.

Short-term risks include respiratory distress and immature brains. Longer-term health risks include cerebral palsy, mental retardation, visual and hearing impairments, as well as general poor health and growth.

Other behavioural and emotional problems faced by premature babies are:

  • Behavioral and social-emotional problems
  • Learning difficulties
  • Increased risk of conditions such as Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Increased risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

The chances of survival do increase as the baby grows older, but estimates are never exact. Some babies suddenly get sick with an infection and can die unexpectedly, while others are able to fight and survive.

Imagine the fear you would feel as a parent to a baby born prematurely?


Want to help those poor little bubbas that have been born prematurely? Neonatal Intensive Care Units in South Australia are collecting breastmilk from generous voluntary mothers in Adelaide.

If you live in the metropolitan area of Adelaide, and you have 2 litres or more breast milk to donate, please visit www.milkbank.com.au or call 1300 459 040

Concerned about having a premature baby? Check out this revolutionary new way to predict premature births. And for more insight into what it’s like to have a baby arrive early, read Born too soon: What it’s really like when you have a premmie baby. 

Author

Leanne is Mum Central's Editor-in-Chief. A former Sydneysider, she turned her ideas of a sea change into reality and now lives with her family in beautiful South-West WA. A lover of yoga and travel, like most mums, she’s on a quest to create a better work-life balance. When she’s not pulling socks out from behind the sofa or sponging little hand prints off the walls, she’s in the kitchen trying to dream up exciting lunch box ideas for her three cheeky monkeys.

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