The 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. …