25 Sep 2013

NZ research set to improve care of thousands of babies

8:12 pm on 25 September 2013

New Zealand researchers have shown a cheap gel can be used on newborn babies to treat low blood sugar levels that might otherwise result in them being admitted to neonatal intensive care.

Using the gel, which costs $2 per baby, means the newborns can remain with their mothers at a crucial time, without needing expensive neonatal intensive care.

The research was carried out at Auckland Hospital's Liggins Institute and Waikato Women's Hospital and published in the British medical journal The Lancet on Wednesday.

It was based on a two-year study at the Waikato hospital known as the Sugar Babies Study, involving 514 newborns.

Low blood sugar, or neonatal hypoglycaemia, affects up to 15% of otherwise healthy babies and can cause brain damage.

Babies with it face extra feeding and repeated painful heel-pricks tests to measure glucose, and often end up in intensive care.

The nurse who undertook the research, Deborah Harris, says low blood sugar levels in newborn babies can result in brain injury, which is why they are often admitted to intensive care.

She says this has happened in the past to at least 100 babies a year at Waikato.

She says separating newborns from their mothers is far from ideal.

"The problem with that is that we separate a mum and baby soon after birth, in a baby that's otherwise healthy, and that simply doesn't make sense."

The researchers found rubbing dextrose gel inside babies' cheeks raised blood sugar levels, while improving breast-feeding.

The study's leader, Auckland University professor, Jane Harding, says it will change care around the world.

A Wellington neonatologist, Michael Hewson, says babies are admitted to intensive care with low blood sugar every day and the treatment will help keep many babies out of intensive care.

He says the approach seems simple but it works.

The researchers say they're grateful to the families involved.