Premature Infant’s Appearance

In the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, babies born prematurely are often admitted to the unit for critical care.  Neonatal infants are not fully developed, as prematurity involves some unique physical traits.  Parents with a premature infant will look at their tiny baby, and see an infant that is very different that a full-term newborn infant.

There are many features and appearances specific to preterm infants, mostly due to the infant not having fully developed in the mother’s uterus.  The more premature an infant is in the NICU, the more likely he or she will be to have some or all of these features.  Over time, as the premature baby gets older, these features will start to disappear, and the infant will start to less like a preemie, and more like a newborn infant.

Premature Infant Appearance in the NICU

The main physcial features a parent will notice on their preterm baby in the NICU revolve around the eyes, skin, genitalia, and head proportion.


In extremely premature infants, it is possible for the eyelids to remain fused at birth.  In time, the eyes will open, which can be a truly unique and exciting experience for the parents.


Appearance of a Premature Baby

Photo by Josh Hopkins

In the NICU, a premature baby may have what appears to be transparent skin, meaning their blood vessels and veins are clearly visible.  This is common with preterm infants.  Also, the skin may be very delicate, which can bruise or or be torn easily.  A preterm infant’s skin may also appear red or purple, which is primarily due to the visible blood vessels and veins

A parent will also notice their baby has very little fat on his or her body.  When a baby is in the uterus, it starts gaining more body fat after around 30 weeks gestation.  They will continue to gain fat until birth.  Also, because the infant is so tiny, it is not uncommon to see the outlines of bones protruding under the skin, particularly the ribs, and joint areas, such as the knees and elbows.

Infant in the womb also are covered with a very fine hair, called lanugo, in the early stages of development.  A premature baby may still have this layer of hair present at birth, and for a short while afterwards.  As the infant continues to grow, the hair will disappear.


For premature boys, their scrotum may be visible, but the testes will not have descended yet.  In premature girls, the labia has not fully developed, so it is common to mainly see the clitoris.

Head Proportion

Premature infants will often seem to have larger heads when compared to the rest of their body.  This is common, and as he or she grows, the head to body proportion will start to develop into a more visually normal appearance.

Updated: 6/13/2011