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Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is a breathing difficulty that many premature babies suffer. It happens because their lungs are underdeveloped.


A baby who has respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) has lungs that aren’t working properly – they’re not expanding easily or evenly.

This can happen with premature babies, whose lungs are immature and don’t produce a substance called surfactant. Surfactant lines the surface of the lungs and prevents collapse of the smallest airways used for oxygen exchange. Surfactant starts being produced when a baby is around 28 weeks gestation.

The earlier your baby is born, the more likely he is to suffer from RDS. Babies born at 28 weeks have a 70% chance of developing RDS. This figure drops to around 10% for babies born at 34 weeks gestation.

RDS is also known as hyaline membrane disease. 


If your baby has RDS, he’ll have trouble breathing. He’ll have to work very hard for each breath. His chest might be drawn in, he’ll grunt when he tries to breathe out, and he’ll be breathing very quickly.

The symptoms of RDS usually appear within six hours of birth. 


An X-ray usually confirms the diagnosis of RDS.


Babies with RDS need highly specialised treatment in a special care nursery or intensive care unit. If your baby has RDS, medical staff will give support his breathing as much as necessary.

Sometimes your baby will need oxygen through a tube passed into the windpipe and a breathing machine (ventilator) for days or even weeks.

Artificial surfactant is now available, and this helps babies who have RDS caused by immature lungs. Your baby is also likely to receive antibiotics. If possible, it’s useful to give corticosteroids to the mother before a premature baby is born (preferably at least 24 hours prior). This helps to speed up lung development in the unborn baby.

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  • Last Updated 19-05-2011
  • Last Reviewed 19-05-2011
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