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The eyes of premature infants are especially vulnerable to injury after birth. A serious complication is called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), which is an abnormal growth of the blood vessels in an infant's eye (within the retina).
About 7% of babies weighing 2.8 pounds (1,250 grams) or less at birth develop the condition, and the resulting damage may range from mild (the need for glasses) to severe (blindness).
The cause of ROP in premature infants is unknown. Although it was previously thought that too much oxygen was the primary problem, further research has shown that oxygen levels (either too low or too high) are only a contributing factor in the development of the condition.
Because many very premature babies have some level of ROP, an eye exam by a pediatric eye doctor is standard. It's usually done at 8 to 10 weeks before the premature baby's original due date.
For slight damage, the eye doctor may just follow the baby with frequent exams. But if the damage is greater, laser surgery will be needed to prevent it from getting worse.
ROP alone doesn't usually determine the length of a newborn's stay in the unit. ROP often happens along with other problems, and those will be a greater influence on when a baby can go home. But babies generally recover from the laser surgery in 24 to 48 hours.