When a baby is deprived of oxygen at birth the consequences may last a lifetime. Oftentimes such deprivation leads to long-term developmental delays. An infant who does not have sufficient oxygen for any significant length of time may develop cerebral palsy, vision impairments, hearing problems or learning disabilities.
Traditionally very little could be done after a baby had suffered asphyxia, another term for oxygen deprivation. Doctors would simply wait and hope for the best, as there was no known treatment.
Over the past few years, though, doctors have realized the benefits of a new technique known as brain cooling. With brain cooling, doctors are able to reduce the likelihood and severity of long-term impairments.
To perform this technique, a doctor uses a simple blanket that is chilled with tubes of cold water. This cold blanket reduces the baby's core temperature from 98 degrees to 91 degrees over a period of 72 hours.
By lowering the body's temperature, the cooling blanket reduces the swelling around the brain and prevents the body from attempting reparative actions that might ultimately cause greater damage. According to Georgetown University Hospital, studies of this technique report a 16 to 27 percent drop in the number of deaths or severe disability as a result of brain cooling.
Although the technique has been promising for oxygen-deprived newborns, there are still some limitations. First, the cooling must begin within six hours of delivery, offering newborns a very limited time frame for relief.
Second, the procedure is not yet commonly available. For the most part, it is limited to academic medical centers. As a result, the treatment is only available to babies who are born in these hospitals or transferred these hospitals, meaning that many babies do not have timely access to what might be a life-saving procedure.
Finally, the technique has only been used for a few years. Because of the limited testing period, doctors have not yet been able to assess the long-term prognosis of infants treated through brain cooling. However, early results are promising with regard to developmental milestones and decreased fatality rates, and this treatment is offering hope for parents who might otherwise have none.