Premature babies come into the world earlier than full term babies. A baby is considered premature if the pregnancy has lasted less than 37 weeks after the mother’s last menstrual period. Premature babies or babies who are born with a low birth weight are at an increased risk of developing vision problems. This is because their eyes haven’t finished developing when they are born.
Retinopathy of prematurity
Babies who are earlier than 31 weeks and weigh less than 2.75 pounds have a higher risk of developing a condition called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). This condition typically affects both eyes and can cause lifelong vision problems and in severe cases, blindness. Premature babies receive eye exams after delivery and tests are done to check for this condition. In normal foetal development, the blood vessels of the retina start to develop at 16 weeks pregnant.  The blood vessels finish developing when your baby is full term. If your baby is born prematurely, the development of the eyes can be disrupted which can result in retinopathy of prematurity. The blood vessels may stop growing or they may start growing abnormally. These blood vessels are fragile and they can leak which causes scar tissue to form. As the scars reduce in size they can pull the retina from the inner surface of the eye. When damage is severe, this can lead to loss of vision or in rare cases, blindness. The risk of a baby developing this condition increases the earlier the baby is born.
The risk of your baby developing retinopathy of prematurity is quite low and most babies who display symptoms don’t require treatment. It is only in very rare cases that symptoms are severe enough to warrant treatment with laser or eye surgery.
Other eye development problems
Premature babies who suffer from retinopathy of prematurity are at increased risk of developing other eye conditions in the future, including glaucoma, lazy eye, strabismus, nearsightedness, and retinal detachment.
Strabismus (crossed eyes) in particular affects more premature babies than full term babies. It is likely that your premature baby’s eyes may be misaligned or unsteady for the first few months but after four or five months the eyes should be straight. If you have any concerns you should check with your baby’s paediatrician or ophthalmologist.
It is possible that your premature baby may also experience an eye condition called nystagmus, which is characterised by the involuntary, back and forth movement of the eyes. Movements may be horizontal, vertical, circular or a combination of all three. If you notice symptoms of nystagmus in your premature baby then you should contact your baby’s paediatrician or ophthalmologist