Maybe we shouldn’t be in such a rush to stop caffeine.

Maybe we shouldn’t be in such a rush to stop caffeine.

Given that many preterm infants as they near term equivalent age are ready to go home it is common practice to discontinue caffeine sometime between 33-34 weeks PMA.  We do this as we try to time the readiness for discharge in terms of feeding, to the desire to see how infants fare off caffeine.  In general, most units I believe try to send babies home without caffeine so we do our best to judge the right timing in stopping this medication.  After a period of 5-7 days we generally declare the infant safe to be off caffeine and then move on to other issues preventing them from going home to their families.  This strategy generally works well for those infants who are born at later gestations but as Rhein LM et al demonstrated in their paper Effects of caffeine on intermittent hypoxia in infants born prematurely: a randomized clinical trial., after caffeine is stopped, the number of intermittent hypoxic (IH) events are not trivial between 35-39 weeks.  Caffeine it would seem may still offer some benefit to those infants who seem otherwise ready to discontinue the medication.  What the authors noted in this randomized controlled trial was that the difference caffeine made when continued past 34 weeks was limited to reducing these IH events only from 35-36 weeks but the effect didn’t last past that.  Why might that have been?  Well it could be that the babies after 36 weeks don’t have enough events to really show a difference or it could be that the dose of caffeine isn’t enough by that point.  The latter may well be the case as the metabolism of caffeine ramps up during later gestations and changes from a half life greater than a day in the smallest infants to many hours closer to term.  Maybe the caffeine just clears faster?

Follow-up Study attempts to answer that very question.

Recognizing the possibility that levels of caffeine were falling too low after 36 weeks the authors of the previous study begun anew to ask the same question but this time looking at caffeine levels in saliva to ensure that sufficient levels were obtained to demonstrate a difference in the outcome of frequency of IH.  In this study, they compared the original cohort of patients who did not receive caffeine after planned discontinuation (N=53) to 27 infants who were randomized to one of two caffeine treatments once the decision to stop caffeine was made.  Until 36 weeks PMA each patient was given a standard 10 mg/kg of caffeine case and then randomized to two different strategies.  The two dosing strategies were 14 mg/kg of caffeine citrate (equals 7 mg/kg of caffeine base) vs 20 mg/kg (10 mg/kg caffeine base) which both started once the patient reached 36 weeks in anticipation of increased clearance.  Salivary caffeine levels were measured just prior to stopping the usual dose of caffeine and then one week after starting 10 mg/kg dosing and then at 37 and 38 weeks respectively on the higher dosing.  Adequate serum levels are understood to be > 20 mcg/ml and salivary and plasma concentrations have been shown to have a high level of agreement previously so salivary measurement seems like a good approach.  Given that it was a small study it is work noting that the average age of the group that did not receive caffeine was 29.1 weeks compared to the caffeine groups at 27.9 weeks.  This becomes important in the context of the results in that earlier gestational age patients would be expected to have more apnea which is not what was observed suggesting a beneficial effect of caffeine even at this later gestational age.  Each patient was to be monitored with an oximeter until 40 weeks as per unit guidelines.

So does caffeine make a difference once term gestation is reached?

A total of 32 infants were enrolled with 12 infants receiving the 14 mg/kg and 14 the 20 mg/kg dosing.  All infants irrespective of assigned group had caffeine concentrations above 20 mcg/mL ensuring that a therapeutic dose had been received.  The intent had been to look at babies out to 40 weeks with pulse oximetry even when discharged but owing to drop off in compliance with monitoring for a minimum of 10 hours per PMA week the analysis was restricted to infants at 37 and 38 weeks which still meant extension past 36 weeks as had been looked at already in the previous study.  The design of this study then compared infants receiving known therapeutic dosing at this GA range with a previous cohort from the last study that did not receive caffeine after clinicians had determined it was no longer needed.

The outcomes here were measured in seconds per 24 hours of intermittent hypoxia (An IH event was defined as a decrease in SaO2 by ⩾ 10% from baseline and lasting for ⩾5 s).  For graphical purposes the authors chose to display the number of seconds oxygen saturation fell below 90% per day and grouped the two caffeine patients together given that the salivary levels in both were therapeutic.  As shown a significant difference in events was seen at all gestational ages.

Putting it into context

The scale used I find interesting and I can’t help but wonder if it was done intentionally to provide impact.  The outcome here is measured in seconds and when you are speaking about a mean of 1200 vs 600 seconds it sounds very dramatic but changing that into minutes you are talking about 20 vs 10 minutes a day.  Even allowing for the interquartile ranges it really is not more than 50 minutes of saturation less than 90% at 36 weeks.  The difference of course as you increase in gestation becomes less as well.  When looking at the amount of time spent under 80% for the groups at the three different gestational ages there is still a difference but the amount of time at 36, 27 and 38 weeks was 229, 118 and 84 seconds respectively without caffeine (about 4, 2 and 1 minute per day respectively) vs 83, 41, and 22 seconds in the caffeine groups. I can’t help but think this is a case of statistical significance with questionable clinical significance.  The authors don’t indicate that any patients were readmitted with “blue spells” who were being monitored at home which then leaves the sole question in my mind being “Do these brief periods of hypoxemia matter?”  In the absence of a long-term follow-up study I would have to say I don’t know but while I have always been a fan of caffeine I am just not sure.

Should we be in a rush to stop caffeine?  Well, given that the long term results of the CAP study suggest the drug is safe in the preterm population I would suggest there is no reason to be concerned about continuing caffeine a little longer. If the goal is getting patients home and discharging on caffeine is something you are comfortable with then continuing past 35 weeks is something that may have clinical impact.  At the very least I remain comfortable in my own practice of not being in a rush to stop this medication and on occasion sending a patient home with it as well.

Is our approach to ventilation really harming babies?

Is our approach to ventilation really harming babies?

A grenade was thrown this week with the publication of the Australian experience comparing three epochs of 1991-92, 1997 and 2005 in terms of long term respiratory outcomes. The paper was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine; Ventilation in Extremely Preterm Infants and Respiratory Function at 8 Years. This journal alone gives “street cred” to any publication and it didn’t take long for other news agencies to notice such as Med Page Today. The claim of the paper is that the modern cohort has fared worse in the long run. This has got to be alarming for anyone reading this! As the authors point out, over the years that are being compared rates of antenatal steroid use increased, surfactant was introduced and its use became more widespread and a trend to using non-invasive ventilation began. All of these things have been associated with better short term outcomes. Another trend was declining use of post-natal steroids after 2001 when alarms were raised about the potential harm of administering such treatments.

Where then does this leave us?

I suppose the first thing to do is to look at the study and see if they were on the mark. To evaluate lung function the study looked at markers of obstructive lung disease at 8 years of age in survivors from these time periods. All babies recruited were born between 22-27 completed weeks so were clearly at risk of long term injury. Measurements included FEV1, FVC, FVC:FEV1 and FEF 25-75%. Of the babies measured the only two significant findings were in the FEV1 and ratio of FEV1:FVC. The former showed a drop off comparing 1997 to 2005 while the latter was worse in 2005 than both epochs.

Variable 1991-92 1997 2005
%predicted value N=183 N=112 N=123
FEV1 87.9+/-13.4 92.0+/-15.7 85.4+/-14.4
FEV1:FVC 98.3+/-10 96.8+/-10.1 93.4+/-9.2

This should indeed cause alarm. Babies born in a later period when we thought that we were doing the right things fared worse. The authors wonder if perhaps a strategy of using more CPAP may be a possible issue. Could the avoidance of intubation and dependence on CPAP for longer periods actually contribute to injury in some way? An alternative explanation might be that the use of continuous oximetry is to blame. Might the use of nasal cannulae with temporary rises in O2 expose the infant to oxygen toxicity?

There may be a problem here though

Despite everyone’s best efforts survival and/or BPD as an outcome has not changed much over the years. That might be due to a shift from more children dying to more children living with BPD. Certainly in our own centre we have seen changes in BPD at 36 weeks over time and I suspect other centres have as well. With concerted efforts many centres report better survival of the smallest infants and with that they may survive with BPD. The other significant factor here is after the extreme fear of the early 2000s, use of postnatal steroids fell off substantially. This study was no different in that comparing the epochs, postnatal glucocorticoid use fell from 40 and 46% to 23%. One can’t ignore the possibility that the sickest of the infants in the 2005 cohort would have spent much more time on the ventilator that their earlier counterparts and this could have an impact on the long term lung function.

Another question that I don’t think was answered in the paper is the distribution of babies at each gestational age. Although all babies were born between 22-27 weeks gestational age, do we know if there was a skewing of babies who survived to more of the earlier gestations as more survived? We know that in the survivors the GA was not different so that is reassuring but did the sickest possible die more frequently leaving healthier kids in the early cohorts?

This bigger issue interestingly is not mentioned in the paper. Looking at the original cohorts there were 438 in the first two year cohort of which 203 died yielding a survival of 54% while in 1997 survival increased to 70% and in 2005 it was 65%. I can’t help but wonder if the drop in survival may have reflected a few more babies at less than 24 weeks being born and in addition the holding of post natal steroids leading to a few more deaths. Either way, there are enough questions about the cohorts not really being the same that I think we have to take the conclusions of this paper with a grain of salt.

It is a sensational suggestion and one that I think may garner some press indeed. I for one believe strongly though as I see our rates of BPD falling with the strategies we are using that when my patients return at 8 years for a visit they will be better off due to the strategies we are using in the current era. Having said that we do have so much more to learn and I look forward to better outcomes with time!

Healthy at risk infants failing the infant car seat challenge.  Cause for concern?

Healthy at risk infants failing the infant car seat challenge. Cause for concern?

The infant car seat challenge(ICSC) is a test which most definitely fits the definition of a battleground issue in Neonatology.  After publishing the Canadian Pediatric Practice point on the same topic I received interesting feedback through the various social media forums that I frequent.  While some were celebrating the consensus of the statement as verification that a centres’ non practice of the test was acceptable, others seriously questioned the validity of the position.  The naysayers would point out that extremely infrequent events unless intentionally tracked may be difficult to pick up.  In the case of the ICSC, if a few patients were to suffer a hypoxic event leading to an ALTE or worse after discharge, could the ICSC have picked out these babies and prevented the outcome?  The evidence for adverse events associated with the use of car seats as discussed in the position statement is poor when using autopsy records over decades but when many clinicians can point to a failed ICSC picking up events, the thought goes that they “caught one”.  Does catching one make a difference though?

The Well Appearing Infant

Shah et al in their recent paper Clinical Outcomes Associated with a Failed Infant Car Seat Challenge attempt to address this very point.  They performed a retrospective study of 148 patients who were either <37 weeks GA or < 2500g at birth.  The study was made possible by the fact that all such infants in their hospital admitted to a well newborn area meeting these criteria by policy must have an ICSC prior to discharge.  Keep in mind that these were all infants who were on the well newborn service since they were asymptomatic.  The definition of an event in this group was one or more of pulse oximeter saturation ≤ 85% for > 10 seconds, apnea > 20 seconds, bradycardia < 80 bpm for > 10 seconds, or an apnea or bradycardia event requiring stimulation.  The failure rate was 4.5% which is very similar to other reported studies.

Why did they “fail”?

  • Failure of the ICSC was owing to desaturation 59%
  • Bradycardia 37%
  • Tachypnea 4%
  • Combination of 2 in 11%

What is interesting about these results is what happened to these infants after admission to the NICU in that 39% were identified with apnea (48% in preterm vs 17% in term infants).  These events were in the supine position which is a curious finding since the ICSC was designed to find risk of cardiorespiratory stability in a semi-recumbent position.  This has been shown previously though.

What does it all mean?

The infants in this study ultimately had more NG feeding, prolonged length of stay and septic workups after failing the ICSC that comparable infants who passed.  At first blush one would read this article and immediately question the validity of the CPS position but then the real question is what has this added to the “pool of knowledge”.  That infants may fail an ICSC at a rate of 4.5% is already known.  That such infants may demonstrate apneic events has also been shown before and a study like this may help to support those clinicians who feel it is still imperative to find these infants in order to achieve a safe discharge.  I think it is important to put these findings in the context of what would have happened if such a unit did not routinely test these types of babies.  As all were seemingly well and I presume feeding with their families, they would have been discharged after 24-48 hours to home.  We have no evidence (since they have not compared this sample to a group who did not have such testing) that if these babies were discharged they would have faired poorly.

The supporters of the ICSC would point to all the support these babies received by admitting them for 6-8 days, providing NG feeding and ruling out sepsis that they were unsafe for discharge.  The other possible way to look at it was that the infants were subjected to interventions that we have no evidence helped them.  Whether any of these infants had a positive blood culture justifying antibiotics or needed methylxanthine support is not mentioned.  Judging however by the short length of stay I suspect that none or few of these infants needed such medication as I would expect they would have stayed much longer had they needed medical treatment for apnea.


I do commend the authors for completing the study and while it does raise some eyebrows, I don’t see it changing at least my position on the ICSC.  While they have described a cohort of patients who failed the ICSC nicely, the fundamental question has been left unanswered.  Does any of this matter?  If you look well, are feeding well and free of any clinically recognizable events but are late preterm or IUGR can the ICSC prevent harm?  This has not been answered here and perhaps the next step would be for a centre that has abandoned the ICSC to follow their patients after discharge prospectively and see whether any adverse outcomes do indeed occur.  Any takers?


Single Patient Room NICUs: Time to Put Parents Minds At Ease

Single Patient Room NICUs: Time to Put Parents Minds At Ease

A few days ago Nick Hall from Graham’s Foundation posted the following question on Linkedin:

Private room vs open bay for the NICU. Can always get a quote from a parent saying it is great but….? At what cost? Impact on staff? Is parent time in those NICUs greater now? Other alternatives?

Included in the post was an article discussing the benefits of such a design.  Below I will look at the benefits and risks and conclude with an answer to his last question.

The NICUs of the 1970s through late 1990s have been described as “barn like” or “open concept” but in recent years the belief that single patient rooms (SPR) would offer greater benefit to infants led to the adoption of such a unit design across North America.  The imagined benefits would be related to improved parent comfort, creating a desire for families to spend more time with their children.  As we move to a “family centred” approach to care, a key goal of all units should be to make their families as comfortable and stress free as possible in order to have a positive experience.

Detractors meanwhile,  speak of concern regarding isolation of such infants when families do not visit and moreover a risk that such infants deprived of sensory experience will have impaired development.  Last year a paper was published that did not help quell such fears; Alterations in Brain Structure and Neurodevelopmental Outcome in Preterm Infants Hospitalized in Different Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Environments (full article in link).  This study which compared infants cared for in SPR to an open unit (the hospital in this study had a mixture of both in their NICU) found a worrisome finding at 2 year follow-up in that the infants in SPR had lower scores on language and a trend towards lower motor scores as well.  Additionally, partly explaining such findings may have been differences noted at term equivalent age in both the structure and activity of the children’s brains compared to those cared for in an open environment.  We were starting construction on a new NICU at the time this paper was published and I can tell you the findings sent shockwaves through our hospital as many wondered whether this was the right decision.

Devil Is in The Details

Looking further into this study, the urban population bore little resemblance to our own.  In our hospital all women are taught how to perform skin to skin care and the majority of our mothers spend a great deal of time with their infants.  To see how successful have a look at our recent Kangaroo Care drive results! The families in this study however the average hours per week of parent visitation over the length of stay ranged from 1.8-104 hours with a mean of 19+/- 19 hours. The average number of days held per week over the length of stay was 0-6 days with a mean of 2.4 +/-1.5 days. The average number of days held skin-to-skin over the length of stay ranged from 0-4 days, with a mean of 0.7 +/- 0.9 days.  In short they were hardly there.

Second Study Finds The Opposite

Later on in 2014 a second study on this subject was published; Single-family room care and neurobehavioral and medical outcomes in preterm infants. Infants < 1500g who were admitted to an NICU between 2008 and 2012 were compared with respect to medical and neurobehavioral outcomes at discharge. Participants included 151 infants in an open-bay NICU and 252 infants after transition to a SPR NICU.

Statistically significant results (all Ps ≤.05) showed that infants in the SPR NICU weighed more at discharge, had a greater rate of weight gain, required fewer medical procedures, had a lower gestational age at full enteral feed and less sepsis, showed better attention, less physiologic stress, less hypertonicity, less lethargy, and less pain. Nurses reported a more positive work environment and attitudes in the SPR NICU.

This study in fact demonstrated greater maternal involvement in a SPR with improvement in outcomes across the board.  It would seem then that in a SPR environment, provided there is enough family visitation and involvement this model truly is superior to the open concept.  Furthermore despite concerns by some nurses that the loss of line of sight to their patients will make for a more stressful working environment this does not seem to be the case.

What About Families Who Cannot or Simply Aren’t Visiting Frequently?

The reality is that there are many reasons for parents to be absent for long periods during their newborns stay. Having a home outside of the city with other children to care for, work obligations, or loss of custody and abandonment due to apprehension are just some of these reasons.  In our hospital, at least 15-20% of all patients admitted are from outside Winnipeg.  The evidence as I see it supports the move to a SPR but what do we do for those children who need more visitation?  The solution is a cuddler program.
CuddlerAs we prepare to move to the new hospital we are grateful for the generosity of our Children’s Hospital Foundation who secured a donor to pay for a coordinator of such a program.  The coordinator’s responsibility will be to ensure that no infant goes beyond a set period of time without feeling the touch or hearing the sound of a voice.  Such a program is in fact already in place at our other tertiary hospital and was featured in a lovely article attached here.

The SPR is the right design in my mind for families with many benefits that spring forth in such an environment. This need not be a win-lose scenario for your hospital. Do not underestimate the power of a cuddler and don’t hesitate to seek support to initiate such a program.  It could mean the difference from going from good to great!