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. 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 supporting your baby's breathing as much as necessary. Sometimes your baby will need oxygen.
Artificial surfactant is now available, and this helps babies who have respiratory distress syndrome caused by immature lungs. If your baby has this condition, he's also likely to get antibiotics.
If you and your doctors know your baby is going to be born prematurely, you might be given corticosteroids before the birth (preferably at least 24 hours beforehand). This helps to speed up lung development in your unborn baby.