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Respiratory Distress Syndrome in Newborns

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Dec 2, 2022.

Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is a condition that causes breathing problems in newborns. This condition is also called also called hyaline membrane disease. It may start within minutes to hours after your baby is born. It is most common in premature infants because their lungs may not be fully developed.


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Pulse oximeter:

This machine tells healthcare providers what your baby's oxygen levels are all the time. Never turn the pulse oximeter off, even if an alarm is sounding.

Vital signs:

These include taking your baby's temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and breathing. Healthcare providers may use your baby's catheter or wrap a tiny cuff around your baby's arm to measure blood pressure. They may use the catheter to measure the pressure of blood in your baby's heart. Healthcare providers will listen for pulse and respirations with a stethoscope. Your baby's temperature will be taken by a tiny skin probe taped to his or her skin or with a thermometer.

Arterial line:

This is a tiny tube that is placed in the artery (blood vessel) of your baby's arm or leg. It is hooked to a machine that will give your baby liquid.


An IV is a tiny tube placed in your baby's vein (blood vessel). Your baby's IV will be connected to a machine that will give your baby liquids and medicine.

Umbilical catheters:

These tiny tubes may be put into the blood vessels of the umbilical cord stump. The umbilical stump sticks out of the belly button. This catheter helps healthcare providers measure blood and heart pressure, draw blood, and give medicine, blood, and fluid. Your baby may also be fed through this catheter.


  • Surfactant replacement therapy: Surfactant is given to your baby through an ET tube. It may help prevent RDS or make it less severe. Your baby may receive 1 or more doses.
  • Bronchodilators: This may be given to open up your baby's airways so that he or she can breathe easier.
  • Diuretics: This may be given to help your baby's body get rid of extra fluid or water. This may help your baby breathe easier.
  • Pain medicine: This may help keep your baby calm and comfortable if he or she has pain.
  • Sedatives: This helps to keep your baby calm while he or she gets better.


  • Blood gases: These tests are also called arterial blood gases (ABGs). Blood for an ABG may be taken from your baby's umbilical catheter. It may be taken from an artery or arterial line in his or her arm, wrist, leg, or foot. ABG results help healthcare providers know how much to increase or decrease your baby's oxygen.
  • Blood tests: These tests help healthcare providers know more about your baby's health. Blood for these tests is usually taken from your baby's umbilical catheter or from his or her heel.
  • Chest x-rays: These help healthcare providers know how your baby's lungs and heart are doing. If your baby has a ventilator, x-rays can also show if the ET tube is in the correct place.
  • Heart monitor: This is also called an ECG or an electrocardiogram. Three sticky pads are placed on your baby's body. Each pad has a wire that is connected to a screen. This screen shows a tracing (picture) of each heartbeat. Your baby's heart is being watched all the time to make sure he or she is doing okay.


  • Oxygen: Your baby will need extra oxygen to help him or her breathe better. The oxygen may be warm and humidified (mixed with water vapor). Healthcare providers may place a clear oxygen hood over your baby's head. Your baby may need CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) given through nasal prongs. The nasal prongs are gently inserted into your baby's nostrils and taped in place. CPAP helps your baby keep his or her lungs filled with air.
  • Endotracheal tube (ET) tube: Your baby may have an ET tube put down his or her throat or nose. A long plastic tube connects the ET tube to a breathing machine called a ventilator. As your baby gets better, healthcare providers will wean your baby from his or her ventilator. This means they will check to see if your baby can breathe without help from the ventilator. Once your baby is able to breathe without the help of a ventilator, healthcare providers will remove the ET tube.
  • Chest physiotherapy and suctioning: Chest physiotherapy (CPT) and suctioning may be done often. Healthcare providers do this to loosen the mucus in your baby's lungs and keep his or her airways clear. This will help your baby to breathe easier. A healthcare provider will tap on your baby's chest, then remove any loose mucus.

How to help your baby while he or she has RDS:

  • You may sit at your baby's bedside to give him or her comfort and support. You may talk to your baby or stroke him or her gently. Ask your healthcare provider about the best ways to comfort your baby.
  • If you plan to breastfeed, it is important to start pumping your breasts as soon as possible. Ask healthcare providers about pumping and storing breast milk for your baby.


  • Rarely, an ET tube may cause your baby's vocal cords to stop working for a while. Your baby may develop air leaks into his or her lung tissue or chest. Umbilical catheters used during treatment may cause a blood clot.
  • Without treatment, your baby's breathing problems will get worse. Your baby may have bleeding inside his or her head or lungs. Your baby may get an infection or develop stomach and heart problems. RDS may cause your baby to develop long-term medical problems. These include lung problems, bad vision, and blindness. These also include learning and coordination (movement) problems or brain damage. With or without treatment, severe RDS may be life-threatening.


You have the right to help plan your baby's care. Learn about your baby's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your baby's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your baby.

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The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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