How Early Delivery Can Effect Your Preemie’s Eyes

African American girl wearing glassesMany risks and complications can be associated with early delivery. Often initial discussions between parents and the NICU doctor focus on issues that preemies face early on including lung disease, infection, slow feeding and risk of bleeding in the brain. Another organ system that may not be fully developed when a preemie is born is the eye. Did you know that your preemie could be at risk to develop eye disease or vision problems?

Understanding Eye Development

Development of the eyes in babies begins at about 5-6 weeks of pregnancy. During this time different tissue layers of the eyes are formed. These tissue layers give rise to different structures that make up the eye including the retina, lens and cornea. Eye development then progresses rapidly in the last 12 weeks before delivery.

When a baby is born early sometimes the blood vessels that supply the retina, an area at the back of the eye, are not fully formed. The retina receives light and is responsible for signaling between the eye and the brain. Complications from prematurity such as low oxygen levels, anemia, unstable blood pressure and infection can lead to abnormal growth of the blood vessels called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP).

Approximately 380,000 babies are born premature in the United States each year.  About 14,000-16,000 preemies will develop ROP with 400-600 of these babies becoming legally blind.