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Retinopathy of Prematurity

Premature babies have many obstacles to overcome in their first fragile weeks. One of those obstacles is eye development. But, a common screening and surgical procedure is helping new babies avoid serious problems with their eyesight later in life.

Little Kaisley was born at 25 weeks gestation. She came early because her mother had preeclampsia, which is extremely high blood pressure during pregnancy. At birth, she was one pound, six ounces.

At only a pound and a half, Kaisley had a lot of growing to do. And in babies this small, the development of all their organs, including the eyes, is a big concern for parents and the neonatal specialists who take care of them. Teresa Warwood, a neo-natal nurse practitioner at McKay-Dee hospital in Ogden, keeps an eye on premature babies like Kaisley and watches for the development of any dangerous condition as their bodies grow. One of the things they watch for in “preemies” less than 32 weeks old is a condition called retinopathy of prematurity – commonly known as ROP.

Warwood explains ROP as an overgrowth of blood vessels that occurs rapidly, developing a ridge inside the eye. As a result, the rest of the eye cannot have normal eye growth and the retina can detach, causing blindness. Warwood says there was an epidemic of ROP in premature babies during the 1940’s, but an important discovery has almost eliminated it.

“Back then we didn’t regulate how much oxygen babies got and so they got a proliferation of oxygen – much more than what they needed,” says Warwood. “And so there was a study done with American Academy of Pediatrics. They tested normal oxygen and then tested less oxygen on a group of babies and found that the eye disease was much less in the group of babies that got less oxygen.”    When Kaisley reached 30 weeks, her ophthalmologist became concerned that she was developing ROP. Everyone waited to see what would happen. “We didn’t really know what it was,” says Mandy. “And so we did the research. They provided us with information about it and why it happened.”

At 36 weeks, her parents were given a choice: subject their fragile baby to laser eye surgery, or risk blindness. They chose surgery. “We were really scared,” says Mandy. “But at the same time it’s a positive thing because it prevented her from going completely blind.”

Warwood says that earlier treatments that weren’t quite as effective as today’s laser treatments. Since laser treatments have been used in this situation, they have much better results with less stress on the babies.    Kaisley’s future looks bright right now, although she will probably need glasses at a young age. But for Mandy, the alternative was simply unacceptable. “We’re just so happy to have her in our lives. “We’re just excited for our future with her. 

The American Optometric Association encourages all parents to include a vision screening in their list of well-baby check-ups between six and twelve months of age. You can learn more about infant eye screenings at