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Respiratory Distress Syndrome in Newborns

  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:


Respiratory Distress Syndrome in Newborns

(Hyaline Membrane Disease; RDS)


Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is a lung disorder in newborns that causes problems breathing. It needs to be treated right away to avoid severe health problems.


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.

factsheet imagehttp://services.epnet.com/getimage.aspx?imageiid=46714671AO00073.jpgAO00073.jpgNULLjpgBaby airway and lungsNULL\\filer01a\Intellect\images\AO00073.jpgNULL12NULL2004-03-043122104671_11599Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

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.





  • Respiratory distress syndrome. The Merck Manual Professional Edition website. Available at:https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/pediatrics/respiratory-problems-in-neonates/respiratory-distress-syndrome-in-neonates.
  • Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) of the newborn. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/respiratory-distress-syndrome-rds-of-the-newborn-23.
  • Sweet DG, Carnielli et al. European Consensus Guidelines on the Management of Respiratory Distress Syndrome: 2022 Update. Neonatology. 2023;120(1):3-23.


  • Daniel Ostrovsky, MD
Last Updated:

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.