Now, a growing breed of doctors are turning grandma’s wisdom on its head, when it comes to babies with brain injuries caused due to lack of oxygen supply to the brain during birth. Keeping newborns cold help them recover faster, say neonatologists who use hypothermia treatment in the neonatal intensive care unit. Neonatologist Dr Deepa Hariharan of Sooriya Hospitals says certain complications during birth, like entwining of the cord around the baby’s neck or large size of the baby can cut the oxygen and blood supply to the infant’s system. “The brain takes the hit instantly and the brain cells slowly begin to get damaged, not just for the duration of the injury but for days after the baby appears to have recovered. But when we freeze the brain using hypothermia treatment, this damage is minimised,” she said.
The method involves lowering the infant’s body temperature and maintaining it at 92.3 degrees Fahrenheit for 72 hours (normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees). Doctors and nurses use a cooling blanket or ice packs to do this. “The reduced temperature helps reprogramme the cells and minimise cell death. When the need for oxygen, glucose and blood come down, the nerve cells in the brain are protected,” explains Dr Hariharan.
Dr J K Reddy , paediatrician at Apollo Hospitals, says the method is widely practiced and has produced successful outcomes in babies with brain injury. “Birth asphyxia can cause permanent damage to the brain if not treated immediately. It can lead to certain physical and intellectual disabilities in children in the future,” he says. The baby should be put on the cooling treatment within six hours of birth and be kept on it for 72 hours.
“It decreases morbidity to a large extent. Once the damage is repairable, the baby is warmed up again to the normal temperature,” Dr Reddy says.
Not all babies, however, can be subjected to this treatment. Babies born before 38 weeks of pregnancy are not given the cold treatment.
Earlier, doctors dealt with such brain injury by providing oxygen and ventilation to help the baby breathe. “We have followed up babies for more than three years after hypothermia treatment. It has shown positive results and their neurological outcomes are better,” Dr Hariharan says.