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Respiratory Distress Syndrome in Newborns


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Nov 2020| Content last modified Nov 2020
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What is respiratory distress syndrome in newborns?

Respiratory has to do with breathing. Respiratory distress syndrome is a kind of breathing problem that can happen to newborn babies.

  • Respiratory distress syndrome happens when your baby's lungs are stiff and can't stay open to hold air

  • It happens when your baby's lungs don't make enough surfactant, a substance that helps the lungs stay open

  • It happens mostly in premature babies

  • If your baby's going to be born too early, doctors give you a medicine that helps your baby's lungs make surfactant

  • After birth, doctors put medicine down your baby's windpipe and give oxygen

What causes respiratory distress syndrome?

Before birth, your baby's lungs are closed. Right after birth, your baby breathes in hard to open the lungs and fill them with air. The inside of the lungs are coated with a substance that makes them easy to open. The substance is called surfactant.

Babies who are born too early (premature babies) don't have enough surfactant. Their lungs are hard to open and the baby can have trouble breathing.

Respiratory distress syndrome usually happens in:

  • Babies born more than a month too early

The earlier your baby is born, the more likely it is to get respiratory distress syndrome. Other risk factors include:

What are the symptoms of respiratory distress syndrome?

Symptoms start right after delivery or within a few hours. Babies have symptoms such as:

  • Breathing fast

  • Looking like they're struggling to breathe

  • Flaring nostrils when breathing in

  • Grunting when breathing out

  • Blue skin caused by low oxygen levels

If not treated, your baby's breathing will get worse. The lack of oxygen can cause brain damage or other problems.

How can doctors tell if my baby has respiratory distress syndrome?

Doctors suspect respiratory distress syndrome based on your baby's symptoms. To know for sure, they'll:

  • Check your baby's oxygen level

  • Do a chest x-ray

How do doctors treat respiratory distress syndrome?

Doctors treat respiratory distress syndrome in newborns by:

  • Giving your baby extra oxygen through nose tubes or a plastic hood

  • Using a machine to help your baby breathe, if your baby is having severe trouble

  • Giving artificial surfactant through a tube placed down the baby's windpipe

If you're likely to have a premature baby, doctors will give you a shot of corticosteroids. This medicine helps your baby's lungs make surfactant and helps prevent respiratory distress syndrome.

If your baby is born very early, doctors may give your baby surfactant even before respiratory distress starts.

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