Pediatric HealthSource: Breathing Problems in Newborn Babies

Edward Shepherd, M.D.
Edward Shepherd, M.D.

Q: I’ve recently heard a family friend talking about BPD, but I don’t know what it is. What is BPD?

A: Bronchopulmonary dysplasia—known as BPD, and also called chronic lung disease—is a term used to describe long-term breathing problems for premature babies. Sometimes, when a baby is born too early and their lungs are underdeveloped, they cannot breathe on their own, so they are given oxygen through a machine. Unfortunately, over time this can cause scarring and inflammation of the babies’ lungs.

The tiny airways of a premature baby’s lungs are not able to remain open to allow for the flow of oxygen, therefore their tiny lungs cannot send oxygen to the rest of their body. As part of treatment, oxygen is given through a ventilator at a pressure that helps the lungs stay open, and is provided at a higher concentration than what we normally breathe. So, while mechanical ventilation contributes to BPD, without these interventions, these babies wouldn’t be able to survive.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for BPD, except for providing infants with the medical support they need to grow, heal and breathe independently. Along with ventilation, treatments include administering medications that help keep airways open, reduce fluid buildup in the lungs and prevent infections.

Always consult your child’s pediatrician concerning your child’s health.

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Edward Shepherd, M.D., is section chief of neonatology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

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There is no cure for bronchopulmonary dysplasia, but it can be treated. In order to be prepared regarding their child’s potential for experiencing BPD, parents should:

  • Know other causes: BPD can arise from other conditions that a newborn’s lungs have difficulty coping with, such as pneumonia, or congenital lung malformations.
  • Recognize symptoms: Symptoms vary for each child, but can include respiratory distress (quick breathing, chest retractions, flaring nostrils) and prolonged assisted breathing (after 36 weeks adjusted gestation).
  • Learn who is at risk: Most cases of BPD occur in premature infants—typically those born at 32 weeks gestation or before and weighing less than 4.5 pounds.

Be Prepared