Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD)

Causes of BPD

BPD is caused by the lungs being poorly developed in babies born very early.

When they are born prematurely, babies have very few tiny air sacs, which tend not to be mature enough to function normally.

Although life-saving, some of the treatments they might need to help them to breathe can also cause damage to their air sacs and other parts of their lungs.

Infants with mild BPD may not need any special treatment. Others may need help to breathe if:

  • they develop another lung condition, such as pneumonia
  • their lungs don’t develop fully after they are born
  • they are born premature and develop a condition called respiratory distress syndrome (RDS)

They may be treated with surfactant, oxygen or ventilation. Let’s explain these terms:

  • Surfactant. Surfactant is a mixture of fats and proteins that help make sure the air sacs don’t collapse at the end of each breath. If your baby is premature they may not have enough surfactant in their lungs. The team looking after your baby may give your baby’s lungs extra surfactant on one or more occasions.
  • Oxygen. Your baby may need extra oxygen. But the high levels of oxygen your baby’s body needs can cause harmful chemical reactions in their lungs.
  • Ventilation helps move air into the lungs and keeps the air sacs open. In some cases the pressure from a ventilator can cause damage to your child’s lungs.

Premature lungs and respiratory distress syndrome (RDS)

Premature babies’ lungs are not yet fully developed. Have a look at our information on how children’s lungs develop to help you understand more.

They may have less air sacs or less surfactant. This makes the lungs stiff and makes it harder for your baby to breathe. This causes them to develop respiratory distress syndrome (RDS).

If your baby’s lungs are stiff, they may be more likely to be damaged by oxygen or ventilation treatment. The smaller or more premature a newborn is, the higher their risk of developing BPD.

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Last medically reviewed: September 2016. Due for review: September 2019

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.