It may seem strange to think about cooling a baby after birth — after all, it is well known that a newborn is supposed to be kept warm after birth to help regulate its body temperature. However, in a small percentage of pregnancies, complications can occur before or during birth which cause a baby to become oxygen-deprived or have a lack of blood flow. This can destroy brain cells and cause severe neurological damage that can lead to intellectual disability, cerebral palsy and epilepsy. About 1-2 out of every 1000 babies born need to undergo whole body cooling.
In order for an oxygen-deprived baby to have the best outcome, within the first six hours after birth, we administer a treatment called therapeutic hypothermia, or whole body cooling, which involves lowering a newborn’s normal body temperature of 98.6°F to about 92.3°F — and keeping this temperature stable for 72 hours. During this time, babies stay in the neonatal intensive care unit at Texas Children’s Newborn Center where they are closely monitored.
Studies show that oxygen-deprived babies who were cooled shortly after birth have a better chance of reduced effects of brain injury. Cooling decreases the metabolism of brain cells so they don’t need oxygen as much and they “go to sleep,” allowing brain cells that would have otherwise died or been severely damaged to heal.
After the 72-hour cooling period, the baby is slowly re-warmed to a normal body temperature over a period of 4-6 hours and those brain cells come back to life. Over the next day or two, an MRI of the baby’s brain is taken to determine how the baby’s brain is developing and doctors can talk to families about what to expect as their baby grows. While this treatment has been known to help, brain injury is still a possibility.
Once home, parents will regularly receive questionnaires asking specific questions about their baby’s development. Their feedback gives our medical team insight into their baby’s health and brain development and helps our team provide guidance on developmental therapies that might benefit their baby.