Respiratory Distress Syndrome in Newborns

What is respiratory distress syndrome?

If your baby is born before the lungs have matured, he may develop respiratory distress syndrome (RDS). A baby with RDS has trouble breathing because the lungs tend to collapse with each breath. Most babies recover completely within the first weeks of life. Almost all babies who have RDS grow up to be healthy, normal children. RDS does not cause brain damage or long-term problems with learning, growth, or behavior.

What causes RDS?

Babies usually start making a substance called surfactant sometime between the 30th and 36th weeks of pregnancy. Surfactant helps keep the air sacs in the lungs from sticking to each other when your baby breathes after birth. RDS can happen if your baby is born without enough surfactant in the lungs. It is most common in babies born before 37 weeks.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Fast breathing
  • Grunting sounds when breathing out
  • Pulling in of the chest wall when taking a breath
  • Flaring of the nostrils when he breathes in
  • Having a bluish color of the skin and lips, which means that he needs more oxygen

How is it diagnosed?

Symptoms are usually seen right after the birth. Your baby’s provider will examine your baby. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Chest X-ray

How is it treated?

The treatment is to help your baby breathe until he outgrows the problem.


Your baby will be attached to a monitor that constantly measures oxygen level, heart rate, and breathing rate.


Your baby may be given artificial surfactant to help keep the airways open. He may also be given fluids and medicine by IV.

Breathing support

Your baby will be given warm, moist oxygen. Your baby may need a breathing machine for a few days or weeks.

How can I take care of my child?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your child’s healthcare provider. Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your child’s test results
  • How long it will take your child to recover
  • How to take care of your child at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them

Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can RDS be prevented?

If your healthcare provider thinks that your baby is going to be born early, your provider may do a test of fluid from the bag of fluid around your baby to see if your baby is making surfactant. Based on the test results, your provider may prescribe medicine that will help your baby start making more surfactant before birth.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2015-01-02
Last reviewed: 2014-12-31
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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