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Premature Babies and Eye Problems

Babies born prematurely are more likely to have problems with their eyesight and hearing, but in most cases treatment is successful.

Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP)

This condition causes many of the sight problems associated with premature birth. Retinopathy of prematurity is associated with excessive oxygen during the early weeks of a premature baby’s life. In a term baby, as the retina (the light-sensitive lining of the eye) develops, oxygen is carefully regulated by the placenta. When a baby is born prematurely, it is hard to regulate the level of oxygen she receives.

What causes ROP?

Scientists believe that premature exposure to oxygen (which is needed for other organs to grow properly outside the womb) makes blood vessels in the retina grow too quickly, causing scar tissue and bleeding. Babies born at less than 32 weeks of gestation, and those who weigh 1.5kg or less, are most at risk.

Treatment for ROP

Early Treatment Can Help Prevent Vision Loss in Children

In some very severe cases, ROP can cause the retina to detach from the eye, which can cause blindness. However, this is very rare. To prevent this, your baby will be checked carefully by an ophthalmologist (specialist eye doctor), and if there are signs of severe ROP then an operation will be offered to save your baby’s sight.

Many cases of ROP get better without treatment, and where the condition does have an effect, the problem is usually minor. This might mean, for example, that your child may be long-sighted.

ROP has five different stages. A retina specialist who examines a baby with ROP can determine when to monitor the condition and when to treat it based on guidelines.

Treatment may include

Cryotherapy (freezing) or photocoagulation (laser therapy) to stop blood vessels from growing and keep the retina from pulling away from the back of the eye.
Scleral buckling, where a band is placed around the eye. This pushes the eye inward, which helps keep the retina in place against the walls of the eye. The band will be removed in a few months or years.
Vitrectomy is a more involved surgery. The vitreous fluid inside the eye is replaced by a saline solution, and scar tissue is removed from inside the eye. This allows the retina to relax in place against the eye wall.

Treatment can help preserve central vision, which allows us to see straight ahead, read, see colors, and drive. Some side vision may be lost as a result of these surgeries.

Potential Complications of Retinopathy of Prematurity:

Children who have had ROP have a higher risk of developing certain eye conditions, such as:

Myopia (nearsightedness)
Strabismus (misalignment of the eyes)
Amblyopia (lazy eye)
Retinal detachment
Regular eye exams as recommended by an eye specialist are especially important for children who had ROP. If caught early on, most of these conditions can be treated without any vision loss.

What causes hearing impairment?

Problems occur partly because the hearing system may still be developing at the time they are born, making these tiny body parts especially sensitive to noise. Also significant is the fact that premature babies are more likely to experience other conditions and treatments that can lead to hearing problems.

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