Caffeine boosts long-term breathing for very premature babies

New research has found that caffeine given to very preterm babies in their first weeks of life significantly improves their long-term breathing ability at 11 years of age.

The research has been published in the prestigious American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine this month, and looked at lung development in children at age 11 who were born very early.

The study, led by the Royal Women's Hospital, followed 142 children who were born weighing less than 1251 grams at birth. Their lung function, or breathing ability, was assessed at 11 years of age.

Lead author Professor Lex Doyle from the Women's, the University of Melbourne and Murdoch Children's Research Institute, said caffeine worked to stimulate breathing in very preterm babies, but doctors wanted to know if this led to long-term benefits for children.

"The lungs of premature babies haven't fully formed when they are born and they are at high risk of long-term respiratory problems," he said. "We have seen short-term benefits from caffeine in the first weeks after these premature babies are born. Caffeine stimulates their breathing, reduces the amount of time they need to be on ventilators, and reduces their risk of lung injury or abnormal lung development."

Professor Lex Doyle led the research that showed caffeine given to very preterm babies has long-lasting effects on their breathing ability into childhood

In the current study, the research team, including partners the Royal Children's Hospital and the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, tested how well the air flows in and out of the lungs when the children were 11 years of age. Children who had been treated with caffeine in the first weeks after birth had less blockage to the breathing tubes in their lungs than those who had not been treated with caffeine.

This latest paper follows on from a recent large study into preterm babies, which has found early caffeine treatment also has long-term benefits to their thinking ability and movement skills.

"It is important we follow the children in this study long term, as the challenge with preterm babies is we often see interventions deliver early benefits which do not continue into the long-term," Prof Doyle said.  "Moreover, unexpected adverse problems sometimes arise with longer follow-up, and we need to know about these to balance the risks versus the benefits of treatment. Most importantly, no negative effects to health have been detected from early caffeine treatment so far."

The Neonatal caffeine treatment and respiratory function at 11 years in children <1251 g birth weight study was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, the Centre of Clinical Research Excellence, the Centre of Research Excellence and the Victorian Government's Operational Infrastructure Support Program.