Respiratory Distress Syndrome in Newborns

Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) occurs most often in infants who are born too early. RDS can cause breathing difficulty in newborns. If it is not properly treated, RDS can result in complications. This may include pneumonia, respiratory failure, chronic lung problems, and possibly asthma. In severe cases, RDS can lead to convulsions and death.

  • Causes

    RDS occurs when infant's lungs have not developed enough. Immature lungs lack a fluid called surfactant. This is a foamy liquid that helps the lungs open wide and take in air. When there is not enough surfactant, the lungs do not open well. This will make it difficult for the infant to breathe.

    The chance of developing RDS decreases as the fetus grows. Babies born after 36 weeks rarely develop this condition.

    Respiratory System of an Infant
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  • Definition

    Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) occurs most often in infants who are born too early. RDS can cause breathing difficulty in newborns. If it is not properly treated, RDS can result in complications. This may include pneumonia, respiratory failure, chronic lung problems, and possibly asthma. In severe cases, RDS can lead to convulsions and death.

  • Diagnosis

    The doctor will ask about the mother's medical history and pregnancy. The baby will also be evaluated, as outlined here:

  • Prevention


    Preventing a premature birth is the best way to avoid RDS.
    To reduce your chance of having a premature baby:

    • Get good prenatal care. Start as early as possible in pregnancy.
    • Eat a healthful diet. Take vitamins as suggested by your doctor.
    • Do not smoke. Avoid alcohol or drug use.
    • Only take medicines that your doctor has approved.


    If you are at high risk of giving birth to a premature baby:

    • You may be given steroids about 24 hours before delivery. Steroids can help your baby's lungs develop faster.
    • Your doctor may do an amniocentesis. This test will check the maturity of your baby's lungs. The results will help determine the best time for delivery.

    Preventative treatments may be given to premature babies with a very high chance of developing RDS. These may include nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or surfactant. The treatments are given soon after birth.

  • Risk Factors


    A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.

    Factors that increase your baby's risk of RDS include:

    • Birth before 37 weeks; increased risk and severity of condition with earlier prematurity

    • Mother with
      insulin dependent diabetes
    • Multiple birth
    • Cesarean section delivery
    • Cold stress
    • Asphyxia
    • Precipitous delivery
    • Previously affected infant
    • Being male
    • Hypertension (high blood pressure) during pregnancy

  • Symptoms


    The following symptoms usually start immediately or within a few hours after birth and include:

    • Difficulty breathing, apnea
    • Rapid, shallow breathing
    • Delayed or weak cry
    • Grunting noise with every breath
    • Flaring of the nostrils
    • Frothing at the lips
    • Blue color around the lips
    • Swelling of the extremities
    • Decreased urine output

  • Treatment

    Treatment for a baby with RDS usually includes oxygen therapy and may also include: