Respiratory Distress Syndrome in Newborns

(Hyaline Membrane Disease; RDS)


Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) occurs most often in infants who are born too early. RDS can cause breathing difficulty in newborns. If it is not properly treated, RDS can result in complications. This may include pneumonia, respiratory failure, chronic lung problems, and possibly asthma. In severe cases, RDS can lead to convulsions and death.


RDS occurs when infant's lungs have not developed enough. Immature lungs lack a fluid called surfactant. This is a foamy liquid that helps the lungs open wide and take in air. When there is not enough surfactant, the lungs do not open well. This will make it difficult for the infant to breathe.
The chance of developing RDS decreases as the fetus grows. Babies born after 36 weeks rarely develop this condition.
Respiratory System of an Infant
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Risk Factors

This condition is more common in males.
Factors that may increase your baby's chance of RDS include:


The following symptoms usually start immediately or within a few hours after birth and include:


The doctor will ask about the mother's medical history and pregnancy. The baby will also be evaluated:

Before Birth

Amniotic fluid is fluid that surrounds the fetus. It may be tested for indicators of well-developed lungs such as:
  • Surfactant
  • Lecithin:sphingomyelin ratio
  • Phosphatidyl glycerol

After Birth

  • Laboratory studies—done to rule out infection
  • Physical exam—includes checking the baby's breathing and looking for bluish color around the lips or on trunk
  • Testing for blood gases—to check the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood
  • Chest x-ray


Treatment for a baby with RDS usually includes oxygen therapy and may also include:

Mechanical Respirator

A mechanical respirator is a breathing machine. It is used to keep the lungs from collapsing and support the baby's breathing. The respirator also improves the exchange of oxygen and other gases in the lungs. A respirator is almost always needed for infants with severe RDS.

Surfactant Treatment

Surfactant can be given to help the lungs open. Wider lungs will allow the infant to take in more oxygen and breathe normally. One type of surfactant comes from cows and the other is synthetic. Both options are delivered directly into the infant's windpipe.

Inhaled Nitric Oxide

Nitric oxide is a gas that is inhaled. It can make it easier for oxygen to pass into the blood. The gas is often delivered during mechanical ventilation.

Nutrition Support

Newborns with RDS may be given food and water by the following means:
  • Tube feeding—a tube is inserted through the baby's mouth and into the stomach
  • Parenteral feeding—nutrients are delivered directly into a vein


Preventing a premature birth is the best way to avoid RDS. To reduce your chance of having a premature baby:
If you are at high risk of giving birth to a premature baby:
Preventative treatments may be given to premature babies with a very high chance of developing RDS. These may include nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or surfactant. The treatments are given soon after birth.


Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics

Kids Health—Nemours Foundation


About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children

Health Canada


Respiratory distress syndrome (RDs). American Lung Association website. Available at: Published 2010. Accessed September 15, 2015.

Hermansen C, Lorah K. Respiratory Distress in the Newborn. Am Fam Physician. 2007 Oct 1;76(7):987-994.

Respiratory distress syndrome. The Merck Manual Professional Edition website. Available at: Updated January 2015. Accessed September 15, 2015.

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