Retinopathy And Premature Babies: Advice For Parents

Almost four million new babies are born in the United States every year. Around 28,000 newborns weigh less than 2.75 pounds, making them more susceptible to certain health complications. Many of these premature babies suffer from an eye disorder called retinopathy of prematurity or ROP. Find out why this condition occurs, and learn more about the implications this can have for your newborn baby.

How retinopathy of prematurity occurs

ROP occurs when there is a problem with the blood vessels on the surface of a child's retina. The condition affects premature babies because these infants have not had enough time for the blood vessels to fully develop. In some cases, the blood vessels start to grow abnormally and may develop away from the retina.

These abnormal blood vessels are generally weaker than those in a healthy child. As such, the vessels may slowly leak. This can cause scarring and can even lead to lead to retinal detachment.

The problem often occurs in premature babies because eye development normally accelerates rapidly in the last twelve weeks of a pregnancy. Premature babies will often fail to get the oxygen and nutrients they need, leading to developmental problems like ROP.

Diagnosis and likelihood

If your premature baby weighs over 2.75 pounds, it's unlikely that he or she will suffer with ROP. The risk of the condition increases, according to how small the baby is. The condition affects up to 16,000 infants annually, but only 1,500 babies need treatment. Eye doctors classify ROP in five stages, ranging from stage 1 (mildly abnormal) to stage 5, where the retina completely detaches. For these babies, visual impairment or blindness can sometimes occur.

Symptoms of ROP do not normally appear unless the condition is more advanced. At stages 3 to 5, symptoms include:

  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Crossed eyes
  • White-looking pupils

All premature babies are at risk of ROP, but it's almost impossible to predict which newborns will suffer from the condition. Your doctor or midwife will start to regularly examine a premature baby for any signs of ROP, using special eye drops that dilate the pupil.

Treatment options

Parents should remember that many premature babies with ROP do not need any treatment. With careful monitoring, ROP will often go away without any long-term side effects. In more severe cases, treatment options are available, which can successfully stop permanent vision problems.

If your baby needs treatment, an ophthalmologist will often recommend laser therapy or cryotherapy. Both these types of treatment destroy areas of the retina that are causing a problem, slowing down or stopping any abnormal blood vessel growth.

Other treatment options (in severe cases) include a scleral buckle placed around the eye. Over time, this can encourage the retina to flatten down and develop normally. Similarly, an ophthalmologist may recommend vitrectomy, which replaces vitreous in the eye with a saline solution to help the retina grow normally.

Ongoing developments

Researchers continue to investigate ways to prevent and successfully treat ROP in premature babies. Unfortunately, some premature babies cannot cope with invasive treatments like laser therapy due to other serious or life-threatening conditions.

In some medical centers, doctors now use bevacizumab therapy to treat affected babies. Eye doctors inject this drug directly into the newborn's eye. Once injected, the medication shrinks the abnormal blood vessels and can cut the risk of retinal detachment. Further studies are underway to investigate the long-term effects of this type of treatment.

Long-term implications

Babies with any stage of ROP are more likely to suffer with other eye health problems later in life. As such, affected children will need lifelong follow-ups and examinations. Babies with ROP are at higher risk of conditions such as myopia and strabismus. There is also an ongoing risk of retinal detachment.

Retinopathy of immaturity is an eye disorder that affects thousands of babies born prematurely every year. Many infants get through the condition without treatment, but an ophthalmologist from a site like is likely to intervene in more serious cases.