The eyes of premature infants are especially vulnerable to injury after birth. A serious complication is called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), which is an abnormal growth of the blood vessels in an infant's eye (within the retina).
About 7% of babies weighing 2.8 pounds (1,250 grams) or less at birth develop the condition, and the resulting damage may range from mild (the need for glasses) to severe (blindness).
What causes it?
The cause of ROP in premature infants is unknown. Although it was previously thought that too much oxygen was the primary problem, further research has shown that oxygen levels (either too low or too high) play only a contributing factor in the development of the condition.
How is it diagnosed?
Because many very premature babies have some level of ROP, an eye exam by a pediatric eye doctor is standard at 8 to 10 weeks before the premature baby's original due date.
How is it treated?
For slight damage, the eye doctor may just follow the baby with frequent exams. But if the damage is greater, laser surgery will be needed to prevent it from progressing.
How long will my baby be in the NICU?
ROP alone doesn't usually determine the length of a newborn's stay in the unit. It often occurs in conjunction with other problems, and those will be a greater influence on when a baby can leave. But babies generally recover from the laser surgery in 24 to 48 hours.