If you have a premature baby, you may have heard of retinopathy of prematurity or ROP. ROP is an abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eye.
During the last 12 weeks of pregnancy, the eye develops quickly. When a baby is born full-term, the growth of the blood vessels that supply the retina is almost complete. The retina then typically finishes growing the first few weeks after birth.
However, if a baby is born too early, the blood vessels may stop growing or not grow correctly. These vessels can then leak and cause bleeding in the eye. Scar tissue forms, and if the scars shrink, they may pull the retina loose from the back of the eye. This is called retinal detachment. Retinal detachment is the main cause of vision problems and blindness in ROP.
Risk factors for ROP
Some babies are more likely to develop ROP. Risk factors include:
- Premature birth. Although all premature babies are at risk for ROP, it occurs most often in babies born before 30 weeks of pregnancy.
- Apnea. This is when a baby’s breathing stops for 15 to 20 seconds or more.
- Anemia. This is when the body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to the rest of the body.
- Heart disease
- Trouble breathing or respiratory distress
- Slow heart rate (also called bradycardia)
- Problems with the blood, including having blood transfusions.
How is ROP diagnosed?
Your baby will get a special eye exam for ROP if she:
- Was born before 30 weeks
- Weighed less than 3 pounds at birth
- Has any other risk factors for ROP
A pediatric ophthalmologist will examine your baby’s eyes. Babies born at 27 weeks or later usually have their first eye exam when they’re 4 weeks old. Babies born before 27 weeks usually have the exam later, because the more premature a baby is at birth, the longer it takes to develop serious ROP. Because ROP can develop later, it’s very important to take your baby to all of her eye exams, even after she is home from the NICU.
If your baby’s first eye exam shows that the blood vessels in both retinas have finished normal development, she doesn’t need a follow-up exam. If your baby’s eye exam shows that she has ROP and needs treatment, she should start treatment within 72 hours. Early treatment gives your baby the best chance of having healthy vision.
Most mild cases of ROP heal without treatment and with little or no vision loss. In more severe cases, the ophthalmologist may perform laser therapy or do a procedure called cryotherapy (freezing) to eliminate abnormal blood vessels and scars. Both treatments help protect the retina.
If your baby has ROP, visit our online community at Share Your Story to connect with other parents for support and comfort throughout your baby’s treatment.