Home Phototherapy to Improve Parental Bonding

Home Phototherapy to Improve Parental Bonding

Jaundice has to be one of the most common issues facing newborns and their families. Whether in the NICU or on the post-partum floor all babies get jaundiced to a certain degree and some become so much so that they require treatment. Many centers the world over have developed home phototherapy programs to allow treatment to be done at home and they are known to be effective. In Sweden such programs exist and in theory sending infants home rather than keeping them in hospital could have positive effects for both the infant and parent dyad in terms of bonding. Keeping the infants in hospital and in particular over the last couple years when in many places of the world COVID protocols made visiting more difficult there is the real potential to disrupt bonding if a baby is otherwise ready for discharge. Researchers in Sweden with such programs in Uppsala recently decided to explore this question about bonding so here we go.

The Study

This was a multicentre study in Sweden by Pettersson M et al entitled Home phototherapy of term neonates improves parental bonding and stress: findings from a randomised controlled trial. The study intended to enroll 250 infant-parent pairs into an RCT comparing in-hospital phototherapy to home phototherapy and determine the status of bonding between child and parents at various time points. The inclusion criteria required infants to be >36 weeks at birth, have non-immune jaundice (DAT -ve) and have a bilirubin at inclusion from 300-400 micromol/L from 48 – 60 hours of age. Infants with asphyxia and weight loss >10% were excluded. Infants were also excluded if their parents did not speak Swedish or if
the physician felt they would not be able handle home phototherapy.

In both environments treatment was provided with a biliblanket or overhead blue lights 25 cm from the skin which the infant would lay on or be placed under. These infants did not have severe bilirubin levels so it appears they had only standard phototherapy. This makes sense as babies with higher risk would not be suitable for consideration of home phototherapy.

Several validated tools were used to determine such things as bonding, risk of depression and stress. The primary outcome was based on use of the Postpartum Bonding Questionnaire (PBQ). Higher scores indicate worse bonding. The sample size was calculated on results from previous studies showing a mean (SD) of 10.7 (8.5) in 250 newborns with 90% power to detect a three-point difference in mean PBQ-sum for mothers at the 5% significance level, with a pre-planned interim analysis after 125 inclusions.

Enrollment was slow and after the preplanned analysis it was decided to stop the study recruitment and see where the results landed.

The Findings

Both groups of infants were treated for a total of about 4 days with testing for bilirubin levels and treatment with phototherapy (about 18 hours of total treatment both groups). The results of the PBQ found a statistical difference in measures of bonding favouring the home phototherapy group as found in the table below at both discharge and 4 months.

Interestingly when breaking down the results by mothers and fathers there was no impact on bonding for the fathers after this four day period of investigation and treatment at hospital vs in the home but at both time points it was the mother that drove the benefit seen. This likely speaks to differences in the way mothers and fathers experience bonding or perhaps how they process threats to it. No differences in stress could be found between the two groups but it is important to note that the small sample size and the fact that it was a secondary outcome make it difficult to say with certainty that there is no impact on stress.

Thoughts

You would be well within your rights to say “so what? It’s what we expected”. The difference seen in bonding while favouring the at home group has statistical significance but I am not sure to what degree this represents clinical significance. Can you truly perceive a difference in bonding based on a two point difference? Would that be meaningful functionally in the home in the way that parents relate to and respond to their infant? Not sure.

What I think we can say though is that the direction of the effect is certainly positive. We can also say from a systems standpoint that not only is phototherapy using a biliblanket safe and effective but it also moves care to the home and thereby creates room in the hospital for babies who truly need to be admitted.

Given the direction of the effect I think what the study does is provide one more argument aside from improving patient flow to aid in the establishment of home phototherapy programs. There are benefits not only to the family from an earlier discharge but also to some degree improvements in bonding certainly between mother and baby. This brief four day period has impacts that can last all the way out to four months. If you were looking for some evidence to support building such a program, maybe this will help!

If a fetus cries in the womb does it make a sound?

If a fetus cries in the womb does it make a sound?

Every parent the world over waits for that moment after birth when they first hear the cry of their child. The cry is a sign of health, of vigour and a relief that all should be ok. I had never questioned when the infant cry develops but one thing is for sure, it doesn’t matter whether you are born at 25 , 30 or 37 weeks, the babies all seem to make it after delivery. Much like suck, rooting and swallowing which we know begin in utero as we can see fetal swallowing movements the question is does cry begin in utero.

Evidence for an In-Utero Start

Before I get into the answer to this let me address the title question. A cry is produced as a baby exhales and moves air in a turbulent fashion across the vocal cords. Since a fetus is not breathing air it would seem impossible for a cry to be produced by a fetus. It doesn’t mean though that a fetus can’t try to at least practice and get ready for birth.

Back in 2005, a research team from New Zealand sought to answer this question in their paper Fetal homologue of infant crying. The authors described a case of a 33 week infant who was exposed to an artificial larynx generating a sound on the maternal abdomen while she was undergoing an ultrasound. The artificial larynx produced a vibroacoustic stimulation (VAS) after first keeping monitoring the fetus with ultrasound for a period of 20 minutes. The duration of the VAS was for 40 seconds and during this time the fetus was found to turn its head upon hearing the VAS and appeared to startle.

As per the authors the fetus underwent the following steps after the stimulation.

“There is a brief expiration that is followed by a deep inspiratory phase with a subsequent pronounced expiratory phase. This expiration is associated with jaw opening, taut tongue, and chest depression (fig 2). It is immediately followed by three augmented breaths with progressive increase in chest rise and head tilt (fig 3).”

At the end of this episode the chin was found to be quivering. This as I see it is the best and first description of fetal crying. While it doesn’t make a sound I believe at least that this is the beginning of an important step in development that will prepare the infant after birth to clear its lungs and inflate them with air.

The question now I ask is when does this develop? As I mentioned earlier the ability to cry is definitely present in preterm infants at pretty much any gestational age I have seen all the way down to 22 weeks. Much like other reflexes present at birth and the swallowing function mentioned earlier this must develop for a reason and I am hopeful that future work will uncover when this first appears and eventually add an explanation of what function this in-utero crying movements serve!

For commentary on this including a video of the first and second cry for this infant have a look at the full video below

If a fetus cries in the womb does it make a sound?

Will the edge of viability be redefined before long?

I couldn’t think of a better topic for World Prematurity Day 2021 than what constitutes the edge of viability. Thinking back over my career, when I was a resident and fellow infants born at 25 and 26 weeks were deemed about as low as “we should” go but we certainly resuscitated infants at 24 weeks but this was considered heroic. Jump ahead to the last decade and we began caring for infants at birth at 23 weeks so commonly that the thought of offering comfort care only to infants at 24 weeks became almost unthinkable for many health care providers. Before I get jumped on, let me say that I am not saying I agree or disagree with that sentiment but it is something that is felt by many.

The Shared Decision Model

In the last few years a rethink again has occurred whereby the concept of the treating team knowing best has been replaced by the “shared decision model”. In this line of thinking, it is not up to us as health care providers to “tell the parents” what to do but rather come to a shared decision based on an assessment of the wishes and values of the parents in conjunction with hearing about both short and long term problems their infants may face if resuscitated. This concept was central to the statement by the Canadian Pediatric Society that I am proud to have been part of with respect to its development. The statement for those that are interested is Counselling and management for anticipated extremely preterm birth

What’s next? Going below 22 weeks?

The challenge of the shared decision model is that there comes a point where the answer is simply “no”. If for example a family at 19 weeks gestation demanded an attempt at resuscitation I would have to inform them that survival is not possible (assuming ultrasound confirmed anthropometric measurements consistent with that age). The question though becomes a little more difficult to answer at 21 weeks and was the subject of a recent article in the New York Times about a survivor at 21 weeks gestation.

Even with the best gestational age dating the estimate can be off by up to 5 days so it’s possible that the infant in this story was closer to 22 weeks or even midpoint between 22 and 23 weeks in reality. Regardless it does raise the question about what to do at 21 weeks and I suspect we will begin to see more stories about this now that the glass ceiling of 22 weeks has been breached. What about below 21 weeks? Sounds impossible I know but with research that remains at the stage of animal studies this may become possible. Maybe not in the next 5-10 years but it could happen in my lifetime in this chosen field.

The Artificial Placenta

This made headlines a few years ago with the news that the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia had successfully kept a lamb alive for a period of 4 weeks using an artificial placenta and amniotic fluid.

You might think that this was a one-off experiment that will never see the light of day but similar work is being done in Toronto, Canada where they have been able to do similar work with preterm piglets in their paper Achieving sustained extrauterine life: Challenges of an artificial placenta in fetal pigs as a model of the preterm human fetus. Incidentally as my colleague Dr. Ayman Sheta worked on this project while in Toronto I am particularly pleased to share this research. Similar to the experience in CHOP the team in Toronto has been able to keep piglets alive for progressively longer durations. My understanding is that despite the best efforts infectious complications over arise limiting how long one can sustain such animals.

This leads me to my final thoughts on where we might be able to go. I see a future where we apply such technology to humans but not in the way that people might have thought. Keeping a fetus after delivery at 21 or 20 weeks on an artificial placenta for many weeks is not likely a realistic goal. What if we could get 1 or 2 weeks though and allow the fetus to be oxygenated without using positive pressure on their developing lungs and transition them at 23 or 24 weeks gestation? We may in this way be able to allow for postnatal maturation in a artificial uterine environment and give babies a chance who would otherwise never had the opportunity for a shared decision with medical staff.

Sound like science fiction? Well the beauty of the internet as my friend told me today is that once it’s out there it out there for good. Let’s see how this post stands the test of time and to all the babies out there in NICUs and to their families I wish you all a good and uneventful World Prematurity Day wherever you may be!

One drug to stop jaundice in its tracks

One drug to stop jaundice in its tracks

If you work in Neonatology then you can’t help but see babies with jaundice. It is so common in the NICU that I would call it normal. While mild jaundice is part of neonatal life, sometimes levels increase to the point that it can be dangerous to the developing brain and in the short term cause acute bilirubin encephalopathy. Chronic injury can lead to hearing impairment and kernicterus with staining of the basal ganglia and cerebral palsy. Phototherapy has been the mainstay of treatment with exchange transfusion reserved for exceptionally high levels of bilirubin. In recent years people have utilized IVIG when hemolysis is present to reduce the risk of exchange transfusion. There hasn’t been much else that one could use but many years ago, proto-porphyrins (SnPP)were looked at as a class of drug that might help reduce the burden of bilirubin by blocking where the substance comes from. Bilirubin is liberated when heme is broken down by heme-oxygenase so an inhibitor of this enzyme (of which the metallo-porphyrins (Sn-MP)might be the right candidate for the job. While initial trials seemed to show benefit there was a side effect of studies in rats indicated that exposure to Sn-PP (but not Sn-MP) led to photosensitivity if exposed to UV light and phototherapy. Given that the Sn-MP class of drugs didn’t seem to have the same issues an interest in this class of drugs has experienced a resurgence.

Phase IIb clinical trial

In the development of drugs there are different phases of trials. In a phase IIb trial, researchers believing from previous research that there is a treatment effect, perform a larger study using different dosing to see if there is still a benefit. In the case of Sn-MP this was done by Rosenfeld WN et al in their recent trial Stannsoporfin with phototherapy to treat hyperbilirubinemia in newborn hemolytic disease. The trial design included infants with hemolytic disease with 91 patients divided into three groups; 31 controls, 30 receiving a 3 mg/kg IM dose and 30 receiving a 4.5 mg/kg IM dose of stannsoporfin along with phototherapy. The goal of the study was to see whether infants receiving such treatments would experience different trajectories in their levels of bilirubin. In order to standardize things as much as possible, all infants were enrolled once they reached a pre-specified level using the AAP phototherapy curves and underwent serial TsB measurements at 2,6,12,24,36 and 48 hours after study entry.

Phototherapy was standardized based on measurement of spectral irradiance at the skin surface with maintenance of 30 microW/cm2/nm to ensure that each infant received the same level of phototherapy.

The Findings

I suppose it shouldn’t shock anyone that the drug works as the class of drug was found to work almost 40 years ago! Looking at the three groups over the 48 hour time frame shows a markedly different trajectory for the patients.

Using an intention to treat analysis the authors noted a 17.5% increase in bilirubin from baseline over 48 hours in the control group and a -13.0 % change in the 3 mg/kg and -10.5% in the 4.5 mg/kg arm. The differences between the two treatment groups compared to the control arm was significant but between the two dosing levels not.

From a side effect standpoint, the following was noted:

Looking at the data, rashes and flushing may be relatively more common yet are transient. Curiously, the number of treatment failures in the control arm was significantly higher meaning of the 30 patients treated with phototherapy alone, 8 had to restart after the predetermined threshold for stopping phototherapy was reached.

Is this ready for prime time?

The purpose of sharing this information with you is not to promote it as a treatment that we should all jump on. I think this story is still early. What will be needed from here are larger studies with well designed follow-up targeting long term outcomes. This study will be following up patients to see how they did but larger numbers will no doubt be wanted before people embrace this wholeheartedly. A quick search of trials on clinicaltrials.gov shows that there are several trials completed and no doubt some to come. Having an exchange transfusion is no laughing matter as there are risks related to clotting, bleeding, platelets etc so having another tool in our toolkit to deal with this common issue in neonates is of interest to me. Maybe it is of interest to you as well.

Getting COVID in pregnancy or vaccination.  Which is better for the newborn?

Getting COVID in pregnancy or vaccination. Which is better for the newborn?

I spend a bit of time on social media and when I do I come across the argument that vaccines aren’t needed in pregnancy if you have already had COVID. The concept from the vaccine hesitant is based on the notion of trying to avoid any perceived risk of vaccination when the body is already making antibodies against the virus. The literature has been fairly scant on newborns in terms of protective antibodies and limited to case reports/series that I have shared from time to time on either twitter or facebook. As you might expect something might have changed as I am writing a piece on this topic again. The change is related to a recent paper entitled Titers of SARS CoV-2 antibodies in cord blood of neonates whose mothers contracted SARS CoV-2 (COVID-19) during pregnancy and in those whose mothers were vaccinated with mRNA to SARS CoV-2 during pregnancy by Kashani-Legumsky et al in J Perinatol.

Setting The Stage

Before getting in to what they did it is important to understand how the mRNA vaccines work as the antibodies that one can look at in mothers and babies are of two types. The mRNA vaccines instruct the body to make anti-bodies against the spike protein (S antibodies) which forms the basis of how the vaccine helps our bodies identify the virus and then destroy it. For those who have actually been exposed to the virus and are not vaccinated, they develop a second antibody to the nucelocapsid protein (N antibody) which is within the viral core so this type will only be present in people who have been infected with the virus and their immune systems have dealt with it on their own. This is an important distinction as it allows you to create pure samples of people who have had the virus as a true infection and those who have been vaccinated and finally those who are neither.

Comparing Three Groups

So the authors here decided to compare three groups of women. Eighty three cord blood samples were divided into three groups (from the paper quoted) based on IgG antibody titres.

Group 1 included 29 samples (37%) from women who were infected with SARS-CoV-2 during pregnancy. Twelve had RT-PCR confirmed Covid-19 infection: three were infected in the first trimester, three in the second trimester and six in the third trimester. The other 17 had no clinical signs of SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy and had a positive serologic test on admission. None of the 17 women had active SARS-CoV-2 infection at the time of delivery.
Group 2 included 29 samples (37%) from women who were vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 in the 3rd trimester.

Group 3 included 21 women (34%) and served as controls.

Looking at antibody levels in Group 1&2, 100% were positive for S antibodies. Interestingly, in group 1, 4 women did not test positive for the N antibody (3 were asymptomatic and one infected in the 1st trimester). In group 3 none of the women tested positive for any antibodies confirming they were neither vaccinated or had the infection previously.

Looking at mean antibody S titres there was a significant difference found in that Group 1 had a mean of 83.7 U/mL vs 225.5 U/mL for the newborns whose mothers were vaccinated. Also notable was the relationship (not surprisingly between antibody levels in the mother at the time of delivery and newborn cord blood titres.

There was a linear correlation between the level in the mother and the level found in the newborn with higher levels presumably better for protecting the infant. Having said that, no infants in this study had neonatal COVID infection. Detractors would be quick to point out that this indicates it doesn’t matter if you get the vaccine since all babies were ok but remember although this may be the biggest study looking at antibodies in cord blood it remains a very small sample and neonatal infection although reported, remains a very rare occurrence.

The Other Side

If you have followed my coverage of the COVID saga from the start you would know that I am in favour of vaccination and in pregnancy as well. The results of this study are encouraging but we need to compare apples to apples. This study compared women who were vaccinated in the 3rd trimester to women who were infected at earlier time points and may have been sick or asymptomatic. The lower antibody levels found in group 1 could represent declining titres as the infection becomes more remote. What we also don’t know is what they antibody levels would have looked like in group 2 if the mothers were vaccinated in the 1st or 2nd trimester as this is now happening. Would the levels be similar? They just might be as the antibody levels do decline with time. We rely on memory cells to reactivate our antibody producing cells if the virus comes along again.

I am not saying this study is meaningless but be prepared if you quote this study for vaccine hesitant to point out that you are comparing recent vaccination to potentially mild cases or remote infections. What is clear and hopeful though is that your newborn is protected by antibodies you make in pregnancy from vaccination at very good levels and until we can vaccinate babies this is the greatest protection we can offer.