LOS ANGELES – At birth, Melinda Star Guido was so tiny she could fit into the palm of her doctor’s hand. Weighing just 9½ ounces — less than a can of soda — she is among the smallest babies ever born.

Most infants her size don’t survive, but doctors are preparing to send her home by New Year’s.

Melinda was born premature at 24 weeks in late August. She is believed to be the second-smallest baby to survive in the U.S. and the third-smallest in the world. She spent the early months cocooned in an incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit in Los Angeles.

Despite hurdles, Melinda lived to her original Thursday due date. Doctors said it is too early to say how she will fare developmentally and physically when she grows up.

For now, her 22-year-old mother sits at her bedside almost every day and stays overnight whenever she can.

On Wednesday, Haydee Ibarra caressed Melinda through the portholes of the incubator where nurses have pinned up a homemade sign bearing her name. Now 3 months old and weighing 4 pounds, Melinda gripped Ibarra’s pinky finger and yawned.

“Melinda, Melinda,” she cooed at her daughter, dressed in a polka dot onesie. “You’re awake today.”

During her pregnancy, there was a problem with Ibarra’s placenta, the organ that nourishes the developing fetus. The fetus was not getting proper nutrition, blood and oxygen. Doctors knew Melinda would weigh less than a pound, but they were surprised at how small and fragile she was.

“The first few weeks, it was touch and go. None of us thought the baby was going to make it,” said Dr. Rangasamy Ramanathan, who oversees care of premature infants at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.

Even if she survived, children born this extremely premature can have developmental delays and impairments such as blindness, deafness or cerebral palsy. But Ibarra told doctors to do whatever necessary to help her baby.

“They said, ‘We’ll take the chance. Please try.’ So we said, ‘OK, we’ll try,’” Ramanathan recalled.