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Can cooling a newborn reduce infant brain damage?

Giving birth to a baby who has suffered a severe brain injury is a bittersweet experience. On one hand, here is your beautiful child you've waited nine months to meet. You love him or her unconditionally. On the other hand, you're tearful and sad because you realize the hard road that lies ahead for your child.

In either case, you want to do everything that you can to give your baby the best shot at a normal life. For newborns who have suffered hypoxia at or immediately prior to birth, a new procedure by doctors to cool the body temperature of the baby significantly within the first six hours after the birth may provide hope.

Hypothermia as treatment

Hypoxia can kill or leave babies with considerable brain damage. Researchers have not been able to undo the damage once it occurs. Approximately two babies are deprived of oxygen out of every 1,000 births.

However, a procedure where cooling hypoxic babies' to a target temperature of around 33° to 34° C for 72 hours has shown to lessen their mortality rates and reduce their chances of experiencing significant brain damage through later childhood.

A recent study by Oxford University and Imperial College of London found that over 50 percent of hypoxic newborns who went through the cooling technique survived to seven years' old with a normal IQ. Only 39 percent survived with normal care.  

Results show promise

This is not the first time that cooling a baby who suffered a lack of oxygen at birth has been tried. Other efforts included fitting the baby with a cooling cap that only gave treatment to the head. The cooling caps failed to make a dramatic difference in most cases, as a high number of infants died or were found to suffer from severe disabilities. But researchers are now seeing positive results with full body cooling and observing improvement for longer periods of time.  

Parents desperate for good news

There is no doubt that parents of babies who were hypoxic at birth will grasp at straws to get a hopeful prognosis. This may now include subjecting their baby to therapeutic hypothermia immediately after the birth. While this cooling technique is not a cure for hypoxic newborns who suffer brain damage, it can be a welcomed alternative to parents who would otherwise be faced with a dire prognosis.

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