Why Are Premature Babies More Susceptible to Contracting NEC?

October 29, 2021 | Attorney, Matthew Dolman
Why Are Premature Babies More Susceptible to Contracting NEC? Necrotizing enterocolitis is a serious condition that commonly occurs in premature babies. In most circumstances, babies born before the gestational age of 37 weeks require medical support and care in a NICU to assist their development. Premature babies face additional challenges compared to full-term infants. While some only require supportive care, others may be born with the need for more intensive care and medical interventions to survive and thrive during this period. Characteristics of premature babies can make them most susceptible to necrotizing enterocolitis. These babies do not get to go home in the days after they are born. Many face long-term stays in a NICU for weeks if not months after delivery until they are strong enough to survive without intensive support. Factors that increase the chances of development of NEC in a premature baby include:

Prolonged NICU stays

Unfortunately, in some circumstances, there have been reports of NEC occurrences throughout a NICU. While NEC does not spread from one baby to another, the viruses and bacteria that commonly trigger NEC can. Without proper precautions and safeguards to protect the wellbeing of all of the babies in a NICU, multiple infants can develop NEC at the same time.

Very low birth weight (babies that are born weighing under three pounds and four ounces)

Prematurely born babies are generally smaller and develop more slowly. Their internal systems, such as their stomachs and intestines, may not fully function at peak development at birth. NEC may develop due to premature babies' weaker bodies and immune systems.

Babies that suffer from low oxygen levels and require breathing support

Various studies have shown that babies with deprivation of oxygen at birth or afterward can be more likely to develop NEC. This may be because babies with lower oxygen levels have less blood flow to vital organs such as their intestines, which can allow for NEC to develop.

Babies fed too early

Premature babies often face challenges after their birth in their time in the NICU. Their bodies may need to do things they are not ready for to help them survive and thrive. Premature babies must feed to grow, develop, and survive but early feedings can also harm a premature baby with a still-developing gastrointestinal system.

Babies fed formula as part of their diets

Experts have found that premature babies given formula in lieu of breast milk or formula with breast milk are at greater risk of NEC. More specifically, premature babies and infants that consume formulas made from cow's milk risk intestinal damage that can cause NEC.

What Are the Risks and Dangers of NEC?

A diagnosis of NEC is serious. This condition can progress rapidly and the deterioration of a baby's health can occur in just a matter of days once they begin to exhibit symptoms. The time it takes a medical team to identify NEC is critical to the infant's survival and quality of life they will face. In addition to a prompt diagnosis of NEC, a treatment plan must ensure close monitoring for additional interventions. Many complications and challenges can arise from NEC. While NEC in and of itself is aggressive, the treatments and interventions necessary to combat this condition can also risk a baby's health. NEC remains the leading cause of death in premature babies in the NICU. In 15 to 40 percent of NEC cases, the baby will not survive. Babies that do survive can face significant damage to their health for the remainder of their lives. In some cases, these effects can greatly reduce the baby's quality of life as they grow and require them to rely on continuous medical care and support. Common risks and complications after an NEC diagnosis:
  • Intestinal strictures - This often painful condition results from narrowing the intestines due to damage and scarring. As a baby grows, the condition can worsen. Depending on the severity and impact on their life, they may require surgeries throughout their lifetimes.
  • Malabsorption - The treatment for NEC that is severe and life-threatening to the infant is often surgery. Through a surgical procedure, any part of the intestine that is severely damaged undergoes removal. This procedure, while often necessary in dead portions of the portions, can cause other health issues such as short-gut syndrome. With short-gut syndrome, the baby can't absorb the nutrients from food and water they need to properly develop. As a result, many babies cannot feed orally and need IV or tube feedings. Unfortunately, this syndrome is hard to manage and will cause lifelong challenges.
  • Sepsis - One of the most urgent dangers that relate to NEC is a worsening infection. As the intestines deteriorate and put other parts of the gastrointestinal system at risk, the infection can continue to spread. If it enters the bloodstream, it can quickly develop into sepsis and put the baby's life in danger.
  • Delays in growth and development - Damage to the gastrointestinal system of a premature infant will make feedings difficult and due to complications, can make it hard for the infant to maintain the nutrition necessary for optimal growth and proper development of the body and brain. As a result, many premature babies that suffer from NEC will have some form of delays in development and slow growth. Some may suffer permanent delays that can affect their functions and abilities as they grow older.
  • Liver disease - Deficiencies in nutrition and trouble feeding orally can cause a premature baby to develop liver disease and other conditions that affect their liver function as they grow older.

Who Is Potentially at Fault After a Baby Develops NEC in a Hospital or NICU?

Premature babies in the NICU require around-the-clock care. The NICU must closely monitor these babies for any potential indication of NEC and nurses, doctors, and other providers must respond with quick action if it arises. Unfortunately, the NICU experience itself may increase the likelihood of an NEC diagnosis. When a premature baby develops NEC or they experience more severe consequences due to the actions of another party, you can hold that party liable to you and your baby. Parties that could bear fault for NEC are:
  • A doctor or other healthcare provider - Doctors must identify, diagnose and treat an NEC condition as soon as possible to protect a baby's health. Any failures or missteps on the part of a provider through this process can result in the death of a baby or lifelong complications after extensive damage to the baby's gastrointestinal system and development.
  • The hospital organization - Hospitals must keep their premises and facilities free of pathogens and threats to patient health. Any NEC outbreak in a NICU could indicate the failure of the hospital to maintain a safe environment for its patients. Beyond a NEC outbreak, a hospital may also bear liability for its choice of nutritional support for premature babies in a NICU. Studies show that formula with cow's milk properties increases the risk of NEC in a baby compared to babies who feed on breast milk. There are means for hospitals to acquire breast milk for their patients or formulas that are safe for consumption for these vulnerable patients. Unfortunately, these options come at a much higher cost to the hospital and they may choose against it to save money for their organization. If a hospital puts your baby's life at risk when other options are available, they may be liable to you and your baby.
  • Formula manufacturers - Major formula manufacturers know that formula with cow's milk bases and ingredients poses a risk to premature babies and infants of developing NEC. Many of these companies continue to manufacture these dangerous products in the same manner for use by babies. If your baby develops NEC because of the type of formula fed to them, the formula manufacturers could be liable.

How Much Compensation Can You Be Eligible For If Your Baby Suffers from NEC due to Negligence?

The compensation in each case depends on the injuries that a victim of negligence sustains in combination with the losses and damages they sustain. In a case that involves premature babies, the parents will file suit on behalf of the child and themselves. They can seek compensation not only for their current losses and that of their child but also future losses that their premature baby will suffer because of the medical provider or formula manufacturer's negligence. Compensation in a NEC case can include:
  • Medical expenses - The costs of caring for a premature infant that develops NEC can rise very high. The babies that suffer from this debilitating condition must often undergo intensive treatment that can include surgery and other delicate and high-risk procedures. Much of these expenses will take place while in the NICU but some will continue afterward, including once home for medical support, follow-ups, and continuous care.
  • Lost wages - A premature infant will have no wages to lose. However, the parent or parents of a baby will miss work, must reduce hours, and some may need to leave their careers to care for their baby that now has high needs after NEC. Under the law, the parents or guardians of a premature baby with NEC can seek compensation for income losses that occur because of their child's injuries and the challenges that arise from them.
  • Pain and suffering - The NEC condition is painful, treatments such as surgery and withholding of feeding are painful, and the aftermath of the condition can cause pain throughout a child's life. NEC is a serious condition that often will have lifelong consequences, difficulties, and trauma for the child as they develop. Some children develop serious impacts on their quality of life and permanent disabilities from NEC. You may recover compensation for these losses on behalf of your baby.
  • Future costs - An insurance claim or lawsuit for NEC does should not only focus on the current losses of you and your baby, but your future expenses and costs, too. When a baby suffers permanent damage from NEC, their bodies and brain development will face significant challenges.
  • Wrongful death - If your child loses their life after the development of NEC. You may be eligible for compensation for the negligence of the at-fault parties. Compensation in a wrongful death claim or lawsuit can include funeral and burial expenses and other damages that impact your family after the death of your loved one.

What Should You Do if You Believe a Negligent Party Caused Your Baby's NEC?

If your baby suffers from NEC that you believe is the fault of another party, you should act quickly to contact a premature baby NEC attorney to help you protect your rights. NEC cases are complex and information and evidence can be at risk. An attorney can advocate for you and move to preserve evidence and the information vital to your case against the parties responsible.


Matthew Dolman

Personal Injury Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has successfully fought for more than 11,000 injured clients and acted as lead counsel in more than 1,000 lawsuits. Always on the cutting edge of personal injury law, Matt is actively engaged in complex legal matters, including Suboxone, AFFF, and Ozempic lawsuits.  Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess of $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.

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