New Research May Lead to Changes in the Care of Nano-preterm Infants

Researchers at Children’s of Alabama are studying the best ways to care for some of the smallest neonates.

Preliminary research conducted by neonatologists at Children’s of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) could pave the way for new standards of care for extremely preterm babies.

Today, some babies with a gestational age between 22 weeks and 23 weeks, 6 days (previously considered inviable) may survive. However, very little is known about what increases the likelihood of survival and reduces the risk of long-term complications in these babies. In fact, until Children’s of Alabama and UAB neonatologists published a large series showing feasibility and outcome differences in infants who receive invasive and non-invasive respiratory support at birth, there wasn’t even a formal nomenclature for them.

“We coined the term ‘nano-preterm,’” Children’s of Alabama neonatologist Vivek Shukla, M.D., said. He is the lead author of a paper published in the journal JAMA Network that provides some of the first data on the best way to manage these neonates just after birth. UAB neonatologist Charitharth Vivek Lal, M.D., is also the senior author of the paper.

Non-invasive respiratory support at birth—rather than immediate intubation and delivery of lung surfactant—has been shown to improve short-term respiratory outcomes in extremely premature infants, defined as those born at gestational age 24 weeks to 27 weeks, 6 days. But it was assumed that non-invasive respiratory support was not feasible in those born between 22 weeks and 23 weeks, 6 days (now known as nano-preterm infants). The problem was that it had not been studied.

Shukla, Lal and their co-authors reviewed data on 230 nano-preterm infants treated at UAB’s level IV neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) between January 2014 and June 2021 to see if non-invasive respiratory support was best for these babies. Eighty-eight of the infants (whose average weight was 1 pound, 4.4 ounces) received non-invasive respiratory support in the first 10 minutes after birth; the rest (whose average weight was 1 pound, 2.4 ounces) received invasive respiratory support.

There was no difference in the combined primary outcomes of death or the complication of bronchopulmonary dysplasia at 36 weeks postmenstrual age between the two groups, but there was a higher risk of severe brain hemorrhageand deathin those who received non-invasive respiratory support. Shukla and Lal are planning a large, multicenter study to confirm the findings and provide data needed for professional societies to develop guidelines of care for nano-preterm infants.

“This could be practice-changing,” Shukla said. “It is also particularly important data given the increasing number of nano-premature babies who are surviving today.”

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