Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) and Your Baby’s Vision

Parents surprised by a very premature birth have a lot to think about, including the effects of prematurity on your baby’s vision.

Baby’s Developing Vision

Your baby’s eyes begin to develop at 16 weeks gestation, but the real growth spurt doesn’t happen until the last 12 weeks of pregnancy, from week 28 on. Retinopathy of Prematurity, or ROP, is a potentially blinding eye disorder that can affect babies born weighing less than 3 pounds or born before 31 weeks. The smaller your baby is, and the earlier he or she is born, the greater likelihood of ROP.

Babies with Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) can also have other vision problems later in life including retinal detachment, nearsightedness (myopia), crossed eyes (strabismus), a lazy eye (amblyopia), or glaucoma, say experts at the National Institutes of Health.

Retinopathy of Prematurity

Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow and spread throughout your baby’s retina, particularly on the periphery. These abnormal vessels are fragile and can leak, scarring his retinas, causing it to pull away. Retinal detachment leads to visual impairment and possibly blindness.

Typical problems of prematurity, including anemia, problems with breathing and the need for blood transfusions put preemies at risk for Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP).

Experts “stage” the degree of Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) based on the amount of abnormal blood vessel growth. Typically, only stages 3 or more require more intensive treatment. Most cases of Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) tend to be either Stage 1 or Stage 3.

The most common treatments for Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) are laser or cryotherapy in which experts burn or freeze the peripheral areas of the retina where the abnormal blood vessels grow. Sadly, these treatments destroy some peripheral vision but are essential to save your baby’s sight.

Stages of Retinopathy of Prematurity

Stage 1 Mild abnormal blood vessel growth; typically resolves on its own without treatment or vision problems
Stage 2 Moderately abnormal blood vessel growth; still, Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) at this stage resolves like stage 1 without treatment or vision problems
Stage 3 Severely abnormal blood vessel growth. Vessels grow toward the center of the eye instead of the retina’s surface of the retina. Some stage 3 infants will improve on their own, without treatment or vision problems. But if the retina’s blood vessels have become enlarged and twisted, indicating a worsening of the disease, treatment is needed to prevent retinal detachment
Stage 4 Partially detached retina; treatment needed to prevent full retinal detachment
Stage 5 Completely detached retina. If left untreated, the baby can have severe vision loss and impairment, even blindness

Source: National Institutes of Health

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