While neonatal respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) can sometimes be the result of genetic problems related to lung development, it is most often the result of preterm delivery, particularly babies born about six weeks before their due date or earlier. The cause of RDS is a lack of a liquid in the baby’s lungs called surfactant, which normally helps keep the lung’s air sacs open. When there is not enough, these sacs collapse with each breath the baby takes; the damaged cells collect in the airways, making it even harder to breathe. Meanwhile, less oxygen is taken in and more carbon dioxide builds up in the blood.
RDS occurs in more than half of babies born between reaching a gestation age of 28 weeks, but in less than a third of those born between 32 and 36 weeks. The more premature the baby, the greater his or her risk of developing RDS and the more severe the condition will likely be.
Other risk factors for RDS include:
- Caucasian or male babies
- A previous birth of a baby with RDS
- Cesarean delivery
- Perinatal asphyxia
- Perinatal infection
- Cold stress
- Multiple pregnancies
- Infants with diabetic mothers
- Babies with patient ductus arteriosus (PDA)
- Rapid labor
- Delivery complications that reduce blood flow to the baby