Respiratory Distress Syndrome in Newborns



RDS happens when an infant's lungs have not developed enough. Immature lungs lack a fluid called surfactant that helps the lungs open wide and take in air. The lungs do not open well without it. This makes it hard to breathe.

Respiratory System of an Infant
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Risk Factors

RDS is more common in:

  • Babies who are born very early
  • Males
  • Babies born to mothers with diabetes

Other things that may raise the risk are:

  • Lack of oxygen during birth
  • The baby's blood entering the mother's circulation before or during delivery
  • Cesarean section delivery
  • A twin or triplet pregnancy
  • High blood pressure during pregnancy



Problems usually happen right after birth or within a few hours. They may be:

  • Fast breathing
  • Pauses in breathing
  • Grunting noise with every breath
  • A chest that sinks in between the ribs or under the ribcage with each breath
  • Flaring of the nostrils
  • Blue color around the lips


The doctor will ask about the mother's health history and pregnancy. A physical exam will be done on the baby. This is often enough to suspect RDS.

The diagnosis may be confirmed with a chest x-ray. Blood tests may also be done to check the baby's oxygen levels.



The goal of treatment is to support and promote breathing. This can be done with:

  • Oxygen therapy or breathing support
  • Surfactant to help open the lungs
  • Inhaled nitric oxide to make it easier for oxygen to pass into the blood
  • Nutrition therapy with an IV or a feeding tube


The risk of RDS may be lowered with regular prenatal care. This may help lower the chance of having a baby that is born too early.

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

Edits to original content made by Denver Health.