Babies who are born prematurely struggle with many different health challenges. Fortunately, modern medical advances help babies who are born several weeks early to still grow and develop into healthy infants. One of the biggest problems that premature babies face is trouble with vision. A baby's eyesight develops in the womb, and continues to develop right until the time of birth. The eye is delicate, and the blood vessels that supply oxygen to this organ need time before birth to fully mature. The muscles that control the eye also need time to strengthen, and the neural pathways that control eye movements need to be forged.
If your baby was born prematurely, you should be concerned about potential vision problems. However, you also should not feel too much anxiety, because with the right medical interventions and vision therapy, your baby should enjoy normal eyesight, or eyesight that is able to be corrected with glasses.
A common condition that comes from premature birth is strabismus-- a misalignment of the eye. You may notice that your child has a lazy eye, or eyes that do not look in the same direction. This is usually because one eye is stronger than the other, and it is compensating for the underdeveloped muscles or nerves in the partner eye. This condition can usually be fixed by placing a patch over the stronger eye, which forces the wandering eye to focus and learn the muscle movements needed for good vision and depth perception. Differences in vision between the two eyes could remain, but glasses and further vision therapy can help with the differing strengths.
Retinopathy is the more serious vision complication facing premature infants. Retinopathy occurs when there is bleeding in the eye, or when the blood vessels in the eye are not formed properly. If the baby is born early, the development of blood vessels is interrupted, and can create these abnormalities. Id vessels break inside the eye, they can also cause scar tissue to form, changing the shape of, detaching, or obstructing the retina. Because this problem is common with premature birth, doctors will:
- test for it. You won't usually notice early signs of retinopathy, so doctors will usually take a look inside the eyes of your baby to make sure there is no sign of swelling or bleeding. The first test usually occurs one to two months after birth. Because the baby will likely have some time in the hospital and have several well-baby check-ups, it should be easy to catch retinopathy early.
- closely monitor oxygen levels. Little babies struggle to breath properly, because the lungs are among the last organs to fully develop in gestation. Oxygen is necessary to help premature babies breath properly. However, high oxygen levels in the blood can encourage abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eye, increasing the risk of internal bleeding. So, oxygen levels are held a delicate level so the baby can get the breathing help he or she needs, without providing additional risk to the eye.
- place a band around the eye to keep the retina in place. The band will control the shape of the eye, and help to promote normal vision development. This treatment may be combined with vision therapy to help strengthen the eye.
- use lasers to correct poorly-growing blood vessels. If your baby does end up develop retinopathy, the doctors will try to prevent bleeding by closing off some of the vessels. This will help protect the retina from damage.
Because of modern innovations, the possibly of blindness due to premature birth is quite low. However, you child may have nearsightedness or decreased peripheral vision as a result of mild retinopathy or strabismus. For more information on how to improve your child's vision, click to find out more or contact a vision therapist or eye doctor for exercises that can help strengthen your child's eyes.