Why do premature babies have breathing difficulties?
Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is the most common complication of preterm birth, affecting over 50% of babies born before 32 weeks of pregnancy 1. Lung problems occur in premature babies for several reasons. The lungs are not fully developed and an important substance known as ‘surfactant’, allowing tiny lungs to mature and function effectively does not develop till after 36 weeks of pregnancy. Also the earlier the baby is born the more underdeveloped the lungs and muscles of the rib cage are. This results in babies becoming increasingly tired, as they require more effort to breathe. Breathing problems are the commonest reason for admission to a neonatal unit (2). Premature babies are much more prone to respiratory infections than fully-grown babies, and may require help breathing using mechanical ventilators, which, although life saving, can themselves cause problems for the baby’s lungs. 1Enkin M et al. (2000) A guide to effective care in pregnancy and childbirth. 3rd edition. C