Very small newborns who receive caffeine to help their lungs develop are less likely to need additional oxygen by age 3, a study published in the May 15 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine has found.
Most babies born less than 34 weeks after conception periodically stop breathing for at least 15 seconds, suffering a condition known as apnea of prematurity.
Caffeine is already widely prescribed for premature infants because of its ability to stimulate breathing. It is also given when the babies are weaned off ventilators.
But scientists have not compiled much data to judge how safe this is over the long term. The new study was designed to assess the practice's longer-term effects.
The team, led by Barbara Schmidt of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, found that 36% of the 963 premature babies who received caffeine during the first 10 days of life also needed supplemental oxygen. But 47% of the 954 infants who received a placebo needed supplemental oxygen. The babies who received caffeine were taken off ventilators one week sooner, on average, than babies who received the placebo, the study found.