Treating neonatal respiratory distress syndrome 

Treatment of neonatal respiratory distress syndrome (NRDS) aims to support the baby's breathing while treating the underlying cause.

Treatment before birth

If you're thought to be at a risk of giving birth before week 34 of pregnancy, treatment for NRDS can begin before birth.

You'll usually be given two injections a day of a steroid medication called betamethasone, starting a few days before the delivery is expected.

Betamethasone helps stimulate the development of the baby's lungs. It's estimated that the use of betamethasone prevents NRDS occurring in a third of premature births.

Treatment after the birth

If betamethasone isn't used or is unsuccessful in preventing NRDS, it's likely your baby will be transferred to a neonatal unit.

You baby may only need extra oxygen if the symptoms are mild – it's usually given into an incubator or by nasal tubes.

If symptoms are more severe, your baby will be attached to a machine to either support or take over their breathing.

These treatments are often started immediately in the delivery room before transfer to the neonatal unit.

Your baby may also be given a dose of artificial surfactant, usually delivered through a breathing tube. Evidence suggests early treatment within two hours of delivery is more beneficial than if treatment is delayed.

Your baby will also be given fluids and nutrients through a tube connected to one of their veins.

Some babies with NRDS only require help with breathing for a few days, although others – usually those born extremely prematurely – may need support for weeks, or even months.

Premature babies often have multiple problems that keep them in hospital, but generally they're well enough to go home around their original expected delivery date.

However, the exact length of time your baby needs to stay in hospital largely depends on how early they were born.

Page last reviewed: 03/02/2015

Next review due: 01/02/2018