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Caffeine Helps Premature Babies' Lungs

Study's Early Results Show Less Need of Supplemental Oxygen With Caffeine Therapy
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 17, 2006 -- A new study shows that caffeine therapy may help the lungs of premature babies weighing 1 or 2 pounds at birth.

So far, the researchers only have early results from the study. They've published that data in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The key finding is that premature babies who started caffeine therapy during the first 10 days after birth needed supplemental oxygen less often at 36 weeks after their mothers' last menstrual period, compared with premature babies who didn't get caffeine therapy, without a higher risk of death or intestinal inflammation/infection before leaving the hospital.

However, babies receiving caffeine therapy temporarily gained less weight than those that didn't get caffeine therapy.

The long-term safety results aren't in yet, write the researchers. They included Barbara Schmidt, MD, of Canada's McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

It's also not known if the results apply to premature babies who start caffeine therapy later, after "most of the lung damage has occurred," states a journal editorial.

Why Caffeine?

Caffeine, a stimulant, is "one of the most commonly prescribed drugs among premature infants," writes editorialist Eduardo Bancalari, MD.

Bancalari was not involved in Schmidt's study. He works in Miami at the University of Miami's neonatology division.

In his editorial, Bancalari explains that caffeine is mainly used in premature infants to reduce the incidence of episodes of apneaapnea -- in which breathing temporarily stops -- associated with an immature central nervous system.

Caffeine is also used to help wean babies from mechanical ventilation, Bancalari notes.

"Despite the widespread use of caffeine for these indications, the evidence to support its use is based on the results of a few relatively small and short-term studies," Bancalari writes.

"Information is lacking on possible long-term effects of prolonged administration of caffeine on the development of the brain and other organs," he adds.

Caffeine Study

Schmidt's study included 2,006 babies. Each baby weighed 1.1 pounds to 2.8 pounds at birth.

With the parents' permission, the researchers randomly assigned 963 babies to get caffeine therapy starting during the first 10 days of life. On average, they started caffeine therapy 28 weeks after their mother's last menstrual period. For comparison, the other infants got a placebo lacking caffeine.

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