Why Is Vitamin E Given to Premature Infants?

Preemie baby with Retinaopathy of Prematurity

Vitamin E is essential to the development of the baby before and after birth, but vitamin E deficiencies in babies carried to term are very rare. Many preemies, however, are given vitamin E to prevent a condition called retinopathy of prematurity.

What is Retinopathy of Prematurity?

Also known as retrolental fibroplasia, retinopathy of prematurity is the leading cause of blindness in children. When children are carried for the full nine months in the womb, the last 12 weeks are especially active for the growth of the eye. The blood vessels supplying the retina gradually spread over its surface and stop their progression at about the time of birth.

In some (but fortunately not all) babies who are born prematurely, a barrier to the growth of normal blood vessels encircles the eye. First, the sudden reduction in available oxygen caused by premature growth kills some of the delicate, developing blood vessels in the retina. The the retina attempts to grow new, twisted and fragile blood vessels to replace them.

Abnormal blood vessels grow forward from the retina instead of across it and are gradually covered with scar tissue. This ring of scar tissue, in some cases, can pull on the retina. In a minority of cases, the retina becomes completely detached and blindness may result.

Who is at risk of Retinopathy of Prematurity?

Premature children are at risk of developing ROP when they are exposed to high levels of oxygen, variations in light and temperature, and certain medications. Fortunately, most premature infants do not develop ROP, and most babies with ROP get better spontaneously. However, in the United States alone there are over 150,000 cases of the disease.

What prevents Retinopathy of Prematurity?

Between 1981 and 1984, six clinical studies confirmed the usefulness of vitamin E in preventing the progression of ROP to its most serious forms. One study of preterm infants supplemented with vitamin E found that none of the 99 surviving infants developed worse than stage 2 ROP (a stage from which the eyes recover on their own), while three infants in a control group who were not given vitamin E were blinded in both eyes. Another study found that infants given vitamin E in the very first hours of their lives did not develop ROP at all. Yet another study found that vitamin E preserved the embryonic character of spindle cells in babies delivered at least 28 weeks after conception, keeping these cells from triggering the development of misplaced, enlarged, and twisted blood vessels.

Since infants born prematurely are placed in round-the-clock neonatal care, decisions about the administration of supplements have to be made by the physician. Parents are urged, however, to discuss vitamin E supplementation with their child’s physician. Buy liquid vitamin E now!

If your child has this condition, it is not necessarily anyone’s fault. There were a large number of cases of retinopathy of prematurity in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s when incubators were first introduced for premature baby care, but the kinds of accidents that once happened in incubators are now very rare.

Vitamin E deficiency does not cause this condition, and taking vitamin E during pregnancy won’t reduce the risk. In this rare condition, vitamin E is essentially a medication for an unfortunate complication of early birth.

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