Updated April 2014, next review April 2017
Your premature baby - vision and hearing
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
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.
Hearing problems and premature birth
Premature babies are more likely than term babies to develop hearing impairment, but the risk is still low.
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.
In this section
Your baby's time in hospital:
You can also read about
The following organisations can give you more information about the topics covered in this section.
BMJ Best Practice (2011) Premature newborn care, Follow up, complications http://bestpractice.bmj.com/best-practice/monograph/671/follow-up/complications.html
The Royal College of Ophthalmologists (2011) Retinopathy of Prematurity Information Booklet, London