Stories about: retinopathy of prematurity

Caffeine helps premature babies breathe a little easier…but how much and for how long?

Cup of coffee caffeine helps premature babies breatheThe caffeine in coffee might help get you going in the morning, but for premature babies it can be lifesaving. For more than a decade neonatologists have routinely given premature newborns caffeine as a respiratory stimulant, helping their immature lungs and brains remember to breathe and reducing episodes of intermittent hypoxia (IH)—short, repetitive drops in blood oxygen levels.

Typically, babies are weaned off caffeine once they’re developmentally mature enough to breathe normally without help, usually around 34 weeks’ gestational age. “It’s at about that age that most babies stop having clinically obvious hypoxic spells,” explains Boston Children’s Hospital pulmonologist and neonatologist Lawrence Rhein, MD. “But the question has been, are there continued but less obvious episodes that we could and should be preventing? And can caffeine play a role in doing so?”

It’s an important question to ask. While no single IH episode has much effect, lack of oxygen over days or weeks can affect a baby’s lungs, brain and heart, and fuel inflammation within her tissues and organs—all of which can have long-term developmental impact.

Rhein and colleagues from 15 other hospitals across the U.S.—together comprising the Caffeine Pilot Study Group—came together to probe the question. Their answer: pour the baby another cup.

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Telemedicine brings expert blindness screenings to preemies

ROP screening in the NICU
Gretchen Hamn (L) and Margie Young screen a premature infant for retinopathy of prematurity. (Photos: Katherine C. Cohen)

We’re in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at South Shore Hospital. Six tiny, swaddled preemies are ready to be examined, their eyes numbed and their pupils dilated with special drops.

Gretchen Hamn, NNP, and medical assistant Margie Young go from isolette to isolette. Young tends to the first baby and gently positions him for his exam. Hamn pulls over a cart and extends a kind of hose with a camera at the tip. This she places directly on each of the baby’s eyes, taking a digital video of his retinas.

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