By Raising Children Network
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Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is a breathing difficulty. It’s the major medical problem that premature babies face, and it happens because their lungs are underdeveloped. Respiratory distress syndrome is also called hyaline membrane disease.

Causes of respiratory distress syndrome

Respiratory distress syndrome happens in premature babies because their lungs aren’t properly developed and don’t produce a substance called surfactant. Without surfactant, a baby’s lungs can’t expand easily or evenly.

Surfactant lines the surface of the lungs and prevents the smallest airways from collapsing. Surfactant starts being produced when a baby is around 28 weeks gestation.

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

Symptoms of respiratory distress syndrome

Babies with respiratory distress syndrome have significant trouble breathing.

They have to work very hard for each breath. Their chests are drawn in, their nostrils are flared and they often grunt when they try to breathe out. They also breathe very quickly.

The symptoms of respiratory distress syndrome usually appear within six hours of birth.

Tests for respiratory distress syndrome

If a doctor thinks your baby has respiratory distress syndrome, the doctor will assess your baby’s symptoms and probably order an X-ray to confirm the diagnosis.

The doctor might also order some blood tests to work out the best way to treat your baby.

Treatment of respiratory distress syndrome

Babies with respiratory distress syndrome need highly specialised treatment in a neonatal intensive care unit or special care nursery.

If your baby has respiratory distress syndrome, treatment will focus on supporting your baby’s breathing as much as necessary. Sometimes your baby will need oxygen through a tube passed into his windpipe and a breathing machine (ventilator) for days or even weeks.

Artificial surfactant is now available, and this helps babies who have respiratory distress syndrome caused by immature lungs. Your baby is also likely to get antibiotics.

If possible, it’s useful to give corticosteroids to the mother before her premature baby is born (preferably at least 24 hours prior). This helps to speed up lung development in the unborn baby.

 
 
 
  • Last updated or reviewed 14-08-2015