How to recognise & treat an eye condition that’s common in premature babies

When you’re caring for a premature baby, you may come across some obstacles or medical conditions that you hadn't learnt about or considered during your pregnancy. One such condition that can affect premature babies is retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). 

All babies less than 32 weeks’ gestational age or with a birthweight of under 3lbs are screened for ROP, as it can be hard to spot any symptoms when it first develops. Some late symptoms of ROP can include unusual eye movements, white pupils and vision loss in either one or both eyes.

What is ROP?

ROP is an eye condition which affects the blood vessels of the retina – the delicate tissue lining the back of the inside of the eye which detects light and allows us to see. 

The retina needs a good blood supply to work properly. As a baby develops in the womb, the blood supply for the retina starts to develop around 16 weeks into pregnancy, and only finishes around 40 weeks when a full-term baby is born. At full term (around 37 weeks), a baby's blood vessels are fully developed and can keep the baby's retina healthy.

Who does it affect?

The reason why babies can develop ROP are complicated, but it's more likely to occur in babies who are born very prematurely (particularly those born before the 28th week of pregnancy), have a low birth weight of less than 1,500 grams, or that required oxygen treatment soon after they were born.

What causes ROP?

If a baby is born too early, their retinal blood vessels don’t develop completely which can cause problems. Abnormal blood vessels may grow out of the retina and cause scar tissue to form, leading to detachment of the retina which can cause blindness. This damage is known as retinopathy of prematurity and if not monitored or treated at the correct time, can cause vision loss. However, rest assured this is something that is regualry monitored by your consultant.

Early treatment is really important, as ROP is a fast-moving disease and complications can occur within just two to three weeks of scanning. Treatment helps stop further growth of abnormal vessels, helping to prevent complications. 

If you have any further questions, please speak to your consultant.

Source: Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the British Association of Perinatal Medicine and the Royal College of Ophthalmologists.