The complete resource for NICU families from admission to discharge and beyond

Why is my baby getting eye exams --- and why so many?

RetinaThe eyes in extremely premature babies – like everything else – are very immature at birth and are not intended to develop in the oxygen-rich environment found outside of the womb. It is a cruel fact of NICU life that the very same life-saving oxygen being given to your baby through what every type of respiratory support s/he is receiving can also cause the blood vessels in the retina of the eye (the part that actually allows you to see) to develop abnormally. If this abnormal development is allowed to progress, it can cause irreparable vision deficits or even blindness. This disease is called retinopathy of prematurity, or ROP, and is somewhat preventable and largely treatable. Starting at about 4 – 6 weeks after birth, or around 32 wks PMA, whichever is later, a specially trained pediatric ophthalmologist will begin to perform periodic eye exams on your baby. Your baby will receive eye drops an hour or so before the exam to numb the eyeball and to dilate the eye to allow the back of the eye to be clearly visualized. The ophthalmolgist is looking to see how far out from the center of the eye the blood vessels have developed, and if they are developing normally. A fully mature eye has blood vessels all the way to the edge of the circle; the closer the blood vessels are to the center of the retina, the more immature. Your baby is at risk for developing ROP until the eye is fully mature, so periodic exams must be performed to monitor this development. Here is a picture of a fully mature retina.

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