Fetal Development Interrupted: What It Means & How Nutrition Has an Impact

February 10, 2020
fetal development interrupted, NICU baby, NICU Now podcast

During your NICU journey, you may have heard the NICU doctor or nurse describe premature birth as “fetal development interrupted.” This phrase accurately describes why premature babies face developmental challenges – because their development has been interrupted. We spoke with Dr. Melinda Elliott, a clinical neonatologist and Chief Medical Officer at Prolacta Bioscience, about what fetal development interrupted means and how breast milk enhanced with human milk fortifiers can aid in a preemie’s continuing development in the NICU.

What does fetal development interrupted mean?

Babies that are born very early miss most, or even all, of the last trimester of pregnancy. 

The last trimester is a very important time in the baby’s development, and it’s often the last third of pregnancy that is missed if a baby is born very early. So while the baby has all of their organs present, most still have a tremendous amount of maturation or development to do. Lungs, eyes and brain are only three of many organs that are still maturing. 


For example, from about 22 to 23 weeks of gestation, or less than six months until full term, the baby’s lungs start to form actual tubes that can exchange air or move oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. Then they form air sacs. This normal lung growth is important for these babies to be able to actually breathe air rather than for mom to still take care of the “breathing” through the placenta.


The eyes are still very immature in the last trimester. When a baby is born very early, the back of the eye, or the retina, from where we see, still needs to develop. Again, the third trimester is a very important time for this development. Any problems that occur during this time can lead to vision problems.


Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the baby’s brain is growing at an incredibly rapid rate during the third trimester. Between 25 weeks and 40 weeks, during which many of these small babies are born, that brain mass, or the size or weight of the brain, increases every 48 hours. 250,000 nerve cells, or neurons, form every minute, and 1.8 million connections between those nerve cells form every second. 

Learn more about fetal development interrupted and how nutrition plays a huge role in that development outside the womb in episode 25 of the NICU Now podcast!


Listen to NICU Now Episode 25: Milk is Medicine with Dr. Melinda Elliott for more information about:

  • Why nutrition is so important in a preemie’s development
  • How your breast milk adapts when your baby is born very premature
  • The difference between human milk fortifiers and cow’s milk fortifiers
  • The benefits of human milk fortifiers for very premature babies
  • How moms can get the support they need so they can provide this medicine for their babies