If A Little Caffeine Is Good Is A Lot Better?

If A Little Caffeine Is Good Is A Lot Better?

Caffeine seems to be good for preterm infants.  We know that it reduces the frequency of apnea in the this population and moreover facilitates weaning off the ventilator in a shorter time frame than if one never received it at all.  The earlier you give it also seems to make a difference as shown in the Cochrane review on prophylactic caffeine. When given in such a fashion the chances of successful extubation increase. Less time on the ventilator not surprisingly leads to less chronic lung disease which is also a good thing.

I have written about caffeine more than once though so why is this post different?  The question now seems to be how much caffeine is enough to get the best outcomes for our infants.  Last month I wrote about the fact that as the half life of caffeine in the growing preterm infant shortens, our strategy in the NICU might be to change the dosing of caffeine as the patient ages.  Some time ago though I wrote about the use of higher doses of caffeine and in the study analyzed warned that there had been a finding of increased cerebellar hemorrhage in the group randomized to receive the higher dosing.  I don’t know about where you work but we are starting to see a trend towards using higher caffeine base dosing above 5 mg/kg/d.  Essentially, we are at times “titrating to effect” with dosing being as high as 8-10 mg/kg/d of caffeine base.

Does it work to improve meaningful outcomes?

This month Vliegenthart R et al published a systematic review of all RCTs that compared a high vs low dosing strategy for caffeine in infants under 32 weeks at birth; High versus standard dose caffeine for apnoea: a systematic review. All told there were 6 studies that met the criteria for inclusion.  Low dosing (all in caffeine base) was considered to be 5- 15 mg/kg with a maintenance dose of 2.5 mg/kg to 5 mg/kg.  High dosing was a load of 5 mg/kg to 40 mg/kg with a maintenance of 2.5 mg/kg to 15 mg/kg.  The variability in the dosing (some of which I would not consider high at all) makes the quality of the included studies questionable so a word of warning that the results may not truly be “high” vs “low” but rather “inconsistently high” vs. “inconsistently low”.

The results though may show some interesting findings that I think provide some reassurance that higher dosing can allow us to sleep at night.

On the positive front, while there was no benefit to BPD and mortality at 36 weeks PMA they did find if they looked only at those babies who were treated with caffeine greater than 14 days there was a statistically significant difference in both reduction of BPD and decreased risk of BPD and mortality.  This makes quite a bit of sense if you think about it for a moment.  If we know that caffeine improves the chances of successful extubation and we also know it reduces apnea, then who might be on caffeine for less than 2 weeks?  The most stable of babies I would expect!  These babies were all < 32 weeks at birth.  What the review suggests is that those babies who needed caffeine for longer durations benefit the most from the higher dose.  I think I can buy that.

On the adverse event side, I suppose it shouldn’t surprise many that the risk of tachycardia was statistically increased with an RR of 3.4.  Anyone who has explored higher dosing would certainly buy that as a side effect that we probably didn’t need an RCT to prove to us.  Never mind that, have you ever taken your own pulse after a couple strong coffees in the morning?

What did it not show?

It’s what the study didn’t show that is almost equally interesting.  The cerebellar hemorrhages seen in the study I previously wrote about were not seen at all in the other studies.  There could be a lesson in there about taking too much stock in secondary outcomes in small studies…

Also of note, looking at longer term outcome measures there appears to be no evidence of harm when the patients are all pooled together.  The total number of patients in all of these studies was 620 which for a neonatal systematic review is not bad.  A larger RCT may be needed to conclusively tell us what to do with a high and low dosing strategy that we can all agree on.  What do we do though in the here and now?  More specifically, if you are on call tomorrow and a baby is on 5 mg/kg/d of caffeine already, will you intubate them if they are having copious apneic events or give them a higher dose of caffeine when CPAP or NIPPV that they are already on isn’t cutting it?  That is where the truth about how you feel about the evidence really comes out.  These decisions are never easy but unfortunately you sometimes have to make a decision and the perfect study hasn’t been done yet.  I am not sure where you sit on this but I think this study while certainly flawed gives me some comfort that nothing is truly standing out especially given the fact that some of the “high dose” studies were truly high.  Will see what happens with my next patient!

Too Small To Extubate?

Too Small To Extubate?

This is something that I continue to hear from time to time even in 2016 and I imagine I will continue to hear rumblings about this in 2017.  Certainly, there are physical limitations when a baby is born at less than 500g.  Have you tried fitting a mask to deliver NIPPV or CPAP to a baby this small?  I have and it didn’t work.  The mask was simply too big to provide a seal and while I am all for INSURE and emerging minimally invasive surfactant techniques they still require transitioning to a form of non invasive positive pressure ventilation to allow extubation success.  Certainly though above the 500g barrier it may be that the greatest impediment to extubation is our own bias.

If this sounds a little familiar it is because I have written about this topic before Extubation failure is not a failure itself.  The reason for bringing the topic up again though is that aside from needing to address our own fears there is a new systematic review that acts somewhat of a how to guide to optimizing your chance at a successful extubation.  The review encompasses findings from 50 studies with successful extubation as defined as no need for reintubation within 7 days.  Before getting into the details of the optimal approach it is worth reminding people that failure of extubation in even our smallest babies is not a failure itself.  Such babies who “fail” up to 5 times do not suffer any long term consequences and may wind up with less risk of BPD than those who are kept intubated due to fear of failure.

So After Reviewing The Evidence What Are the Recipes To Success?

    1. Continuous positive airway pressure

      Reduced extubation failure in comparison with head-box oxygen (risk ratio [RR], 0.59;95%CI, 0.48-0.72; number needed to treat [NNT], 6; 95%CI, 3-9). If you aren’t extubating to nCPAP then chances are I would bet your success rates are quite low.  Head boxes certainly can tell you how much O2 a patient requires but do nothing to help inflate alveolar spaces.

    2. Nasal intermittent positive pressure ventilation (NIPPV) vs. CPAP

      Higher prevention of extubation failure (RR, 0.70; 95%CI, 0.60-0.81; NNT, 8; 95%CI, 5-13).  This one is of particular interest to me.  The evidence has suggested this for some time and with a number needed to treat of 8 it would seem illogical to use anything else at the outset, especially in the smallest of infants.  The issue here though is that at least here in Canada the options for delivering such NIPPV are currently quite limited.  At the moment we are limited to use of ventilator NIPPV and the stability of the CPAP offered from such devices and the imposed work of breathing are most likely inferior to that found in variable flow devices which at this point have been pulled from the market. See Comparison of nasal continuous positive airway pressure delivered by seven ventilators using simulated neonatal breathing.  What I hope 2017 brings is a comparison of the effectiveness of extubation success using new variable flow devices capable of generating previously unreachable CPAP pressures above 9 or 10 cm H2O.  Will these attain similar effectiveness to the NIPPV devices?

    3. Methylxanthines reduced extubation failure (RR, 0.48; 95%CI, 0.32-0.71; NNT, 4; 95%CI, 2-7) compared with placebo or no treatment. Ok, pretty much anyone working in Neonatology would assume this but what really is at the crux of the discussion in 2016 and beyond is “what dose?” It has been pretty clear during my career thus far that there are some preterm infants that just don’t respond to conventional doses of caffeine base from 2.5  – 5 mg/kg/d.  In our own units we have increased doses to 6, 7 or 8 mg/kg/d to achieve some degree of respiratory stimulation and usually been limited by tachycardia in determining how high we can go.  Given the sparse literature regarding safety on this topic we are relegated to ask ourselves what is worse, leaving a baby on a ventilator or using higher doses of caffeine? I have given some thoughts on this before as well Are we overdosing preemies on caffeine?


  1. Doxapram did not aid successful extubation (RR, 0.80; 95% CI, 0.22-2.97). For selfish reasons I have to admit I was happy to see this.  We can’t access this medication very easily here in Canada so hearing that it doesn’t seem to work to enhance the likelihood of a successful extubation is somewhat of a relief.

A Cautionary Note

While I applaud the authors of the systematic review for performing such a thorough job I do feel the need to raise one concern with the analysis.  It is not a major concern but one that I just feel the need to mention.  Success if the studies was defined as not requiring reintubation within 7 days of extubation.  My concern is that having such a lengthy time frame leaves the possibility that the decision to reintubate had nothing to do with the patient in fact not being ready.  Seven days is a long time and much can happen in the life of a preterm infant in an NICU that triggers a reintubation.  What if a patient needed to be transferred to a different NICU and for safe air transport it was deemed safest to replace the ETT?  How many patients could have developed NEC or sepsis in the seven days? What if a PDA was being semi-electively ligated after a failed NSAID course?

In the end the impact of such conditions could be minimal but I am less convinced that a patient failed extubation when up to 7 days have passed.  I would be very interested to see a similar study looking at a period of 24 or 48 hours after extubation and seeing how many stay that way.  Would the predictors of success stay the same?  Probably but I suspect the number safely extubated would rise as well.

  • featured image from the March of Dimes