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.

The following organisations can give you more information about the topics covered in this section.

The baby unit

  • Premature baby being held by mother.

    Practical tips for surviving the baby unit

    The best thing you can do for your baby is to look after yourself. That way, you will be better equipped to handle the challenges that face you and your family. Help is at hand from many sources - family, friends and the healthcare team in the special care baby unit - so don't be afraid to ask for what you need.

  • Premature baby using breathing apparatus.

    How the baby unit works

    The special care baby unit (SCBU)/neonatal unit/neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) becomes the centre of the universe for parents of premature babies, so it's important to familiarise yourself with the way it operates.

  • Sleeping premature baby in care unit.

    The first few days with your premature baby

    The first few days after giving birth to your premature baby can pass in a daze. Here's what to expect...

  • Premature baby being tube fed.

    Transferring your premature baby

    If your baby is very young and very sick, he may need to be transferred to another hospital with specialist facilities. This might be done before he is born or just afterwards.

  • Premature baby in incubator.

    What happens just after your premature baby is born

    Whatever your premature baby's birth was like, it will have taken a lot out of you, so try to rest and gather your strength for the days ahead. The medical team will assess your baby's health and start treating him if necessary.

Caring for your baby

  • Mother holding baby to her chest.

    Kangaroo care

    Skin-to-skin contact with your premature baby is a wonderful way for you both to bond. It also provides health benefits.

  • Mother holding premature baby.

    Caring for your baby: your role

    The healthcare team will cater for your baby's medical needs, but she needs you too. As you get to know your premature baby, you will begin to work out what she needs.

  • Premature baby using feeding equipment.

    Feeding your premature baby

    Your premature baby's diet will be carefully balanced to suit her tiny digestive system while meeting the needs of her growing body. This page covers talks about to feed your baby, from breastfeeding and expressing to cup and bottle feeding.

  • Premature baby in incubator.

    Positioning your premature baby

    Positioning your premature baby correctly can make her feel secure, improve her breathing ability, strengthen her muscles and reduce her risk of cot death.

Treatment and medical support your baby may have

Sources

  1. BMJ Best Practice (2011) Premature newborn care, Follow up, complicationshttp://bestpractice.bmj.com/best-practice/monograph/671/follow-up/compli...
  2. The Royal College of Ophthalmologists (2011) Retinopathy of Prematurity Information Booklet, London
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Last reviewed on April 1st, 2014. Next review date April 1st, 2017.

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