Premature Babies and Edema

Edema is bodily swelling caused by fluid leaving the bloodstream and traveling into the tissues. Edema is common in premature babies, whose urinary and circulatory systems are not fully developed. 

Preemies have a higher water content than full-term babies and the regular routine of administering fluids in the NICU may contribute to edema. Infants have a slower red blood cell production, so the breakdown of red cells may be faster than their ability to produce new red blood cells. This is even more of a problem for preemies. Poor circulation can also make it difficult for your preemie’s body to remove excess fluid. Because of this, if your child is premature, they will generally need help expelling fluids.

Nurse and premature baby
Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Types and Symptoms of Edema

Edema may be mild, causing swelling in the feet or legs, or severe, causing such widespread swelling that the body’s organs are overwhelmed. Severe edema may be caused by other conditions that need to be treated in order to reduce the edema. Because infants are often lying flat, edema may settle in dependent areas or is more diffused. It can also settle in the genitalia. Medications may be given to help the baby pass urine, reducing the amount of fluid in the body.

Treating Edema

If your child was born premature, the NICU will most likely give them diuretics to help them release fluid. Furosemide is a common treatment for swelling in preemies. These treatments are generally there to help your baby along as the underlying cause of their edema will improve as they grow stronger and more self-sufficient. Blood transfusions may also be given to help improve your child’s blood flow.

The dosage and amount of time your baby’s edema treatment will take depends heavily on their age, organ function, ability to breathe on their own, and blood circulation. The age and size of your baby will also be accounted for in their treatment plan. Treatment lasts as long as is required for your child’s bodily functions. As your child becomes more physiologic mature, treatment will no longer be necessary. 

Once You're Home

While some conditions can have long-term side effects, your baby can make a full recovery from edema once it is treated. There are no known long-term health effects related to having edema. If you suspect edema through the symptoms mentioned above along with difficulty breathing or tightness in your child’s chest, call 911 immediately. It’s very important to keep a watchful eye on your preemie.

Was this page helpful?
4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Rutledge A, Murphy HJ, Harer MW, Jetton JG. Fluid balance in the critically ill child section: “how bad is fluid in neonates?” Front Pediatr. 2021;9:651458. doi:10.3389/fped.2021.651458

  2. Lingwood BE, Eiby YA, Bjorkman ST, Miller SM, Wright IMR. Supporting preterm cardiovascular function. Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol. 2019;46(3):274-279. doi:10.1111/1440-1681.13044

  3. MedlinePlus. Hydrops fetalis.

  4. Jackson W, Taylor G, Selewski D, Smith PB, Tolleson-Rinehart S, Laughon MM. Association between furosemide in premature infants and sensorineural hearing loss and nephrocalcinosis: a systematic review. Matern Health Neonatol Perinatol. 2018;4(1):23. doi:10.1186/s40748-018-0092-2