About respiratory distress syndrome
Respiratory distress syndrome is a breathing difficulty in some premature babies. It 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.
Babies start producing surfactant at around 28 weeks gestation.
The earlier babies are born, the more likely they are to suffer from respiratory distress syndrome.
Other risk factors for respiratory distress syndrome include:
- a mother’s health during pregnancy
- a family’s ethnic background
- other genetic risk factors.
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. The doctor will check your baby’s breathing rate, heart rate and oxygen levels, and will probably order an X-ray to confirm the diagnosis.
The doctor might order some blood tests to check whether your baby also has an infection and 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 making it easier for your baby to breathe. Your baby might get air or oxygen through a mask over their face or through a tube that sits inside their nostrils.
Your baby might also get artificial surfactant through a tube into their lungs until your baby can make their own surfactant.
Your baby might also be given antibiotics if doctors think your baby has an infection as well as respiratory distress syndrome.
If you know your baby is going to be born prematurely, you might be given 1-2 doses of corticosteroids before the birth (preferably at least 24 hours beforehand). This helps to speed up lung development in your unborn baby.
Most premature babies with respiratory distress syndrome recover by the time they reach their expected birth date and have no long-term complications. A small number of babies develop chronic lung disease, especially if they were extremely preterm (born at less than 28 weeks gestation).