For Preemies, Better Use of Oxygen Improves Survival

Common sleep apnea treatment seems to help early babies, too

SUNDAY, May 16 (HealthDay News) -- New research is shedding light on how to better use oxygen to treat extremely premature babies.

Doctors report that higher levels of oxygen improve the odds that the babies will survive, but make it more likely that they'll suffer from eye damage.

But they also noted that a treatment used to help adults with sleep apnea is as effective as the traditional ventilator treatment for these babies and may cause fewer complications.

The treatment uses a continuous positive airway pressure machine to blow air into a baby's nose and gently inflate the lungs.

Until now, this treatment "had shown promise in treating respiratory distress in preterm infants, but had never been compared to ventilator therapy in this group of patients," Dr. Alan E. Guttmacher, acting director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said in a news release from the institute, which helped fund the study.

The study indicates that the treatment "is an effective initial alternative to ventilator therapy for very preterm infants of 24-27 weeks gestational age," Guttmacher said.

"Balancing the benefits of supplemental oxygen against the risks in these very premature babies has been a concern of doctors and parents for decades," Dr. Susan B. Shurin, acting director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, said in the news release. "The results of this large clinical trial of extremely low birth weight infants will help inform management decisions to improve chances of survival and reduce complications associated with breathing problems in these vulnerable patients."

Researchers came to their conclusions after studying 1,316 babies born between the 24th and 27th weeks of pregnancy instead of at the normal 40 weeks.

The studies will be published online Sunday in the New England Journal of Medicine, to coincide with their slated presentation Sunday at the American Thoracic Society's international conference in New Orleans.

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more on premature births.

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