It isn’t often that something comes along that causes me to raise not one but two eyebrows but I suppose the idea of adding insulin to preemies feeds is just such a thing. Apparently this research isn’t that new as there has been some previous animal research and human testing of breastmilk that revealed insulin is present in milk at concentrations of 46 microunit/mL. Testing of amniotic fluid has found even higher levels at 2500 microunits/mL! All of this insulin can’t be there by accident. If you believe in evolution as I do it can’t be by chance that all that insulin doesn’t have a role to play. By extension, since babies swallow amniotic fluid and therefore bath the developing intestine in insulin containing fluid there must be a benefit right?
Let’s do a study looking at benefits of oral insulin added to formula!
Infants included in this study were from 26-33 weeks GA with a birth weight greater than or equal to 750g and postnatal age < 7 days. Since breastmilk has insulin in it already all infants were fed formula. The insulin was NTRA as a dry powder with the dose of 400 microunit/mL chosen based on the amount known to be in amniotic fluid. The study required 76 patients but was stopped after 33 patients when a planned interim analysis found a benefit already to the intervention without any safety concerns identified.
The primary outcome was the time it took to reach full feedings defined as 150 mL/kg/d of enteral formula intake.
As you can see there was about a 1.6 day advantage favouring the group receiving insulin. This represents a 20% reduction in time to full feedings
In terms of secondary outcomes the results were also impressive even more so when one considers the small sample size. While we don’t routinely measure gastric residuals in our centre the authors did these measurements as a proxy for feeding tolerance. They defined low residuals as a goal of < 2 mL/kg in 24 hours. In the insulin group this goal was reached in 1.67 days vs 5.09 days in the placebo group. While this result had a p Value of 0.056 so therefore just missed being significant it is an interesting trend for sure. Again owing to small size while a difference in time to wean off TPN was 2.4 days shorter in the insulin group it was not significantly different. No difference it time to discharge was found but again the difference favoured the insulin group with a mean reduction of about 9 days for singletons.
Below are the growth curves for the first 28 days reflecting a mean weight increase of 768.9g in the insulin group and 643.6g in the placebo arm.
So What’s Next?
I would like to start of by saying I hope one day you say you saw it here first! I think this research is very promising and no doubt a phase 3 trial with larger numbers is on the way. This isn’t quite ready for prime time as the saying goes based on small numbers but it is reassuring. Keep in mind this isn’t for everyone. We want as much as possible to provide breastmilk to our infants as it is more than just growth that we think about and time to full feeds. The question though for the future is whether for mothers who can’t produce enough or don’t want to breastfeed whether a little insulin sprinkled into their infant’s feeding will be just what the doctor ordered. My bet is that in the future you will see this indeed come into practice but we will need to certainly wait for bigger trials to confirm the trends that we are seeing here!@
The metabolic syndrome describes the development as an adult of centripetal obesity, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, elevated blood sugar and low HDL cholesterol. These constellation of problems significantly increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes.
The theory here is that conditions in utero in which the fetus is chronically deprived of blood flow and nutrition lead to a tendency towards insulin resistance. The body is essentially trying to use any energy it is receiving to stay alive in an environment in which resources are scarce. Given that situation, resisting the effects of insulin by preventing storage of this needed energy serves a useful purpose but in the long run may be detrimental as the body become programmed to resist the effects of this hormone.
What if this programming could be overcome?
Breast milk certainly has many incredible properties and as we learn more we discover only more applications. My previous post on putting breast milk in the nasal cavity is just one such example (Can intranasal application of breastmilk cure severe IVH?). In 2019 Dr. Hair and Abram’s group looked at this with respect to insulin resistance and with potential extrapolation to the metabolic syndrome in their paper Premature small for gestational age infants fed an exclusive human milk-based diet achieve catch-up growth without metabolic consequences at 2 years of age. Texas Children’s Hospital uses an exclusive human milk diet for premature infants with the following criteria GA of <37 weeks, BW of ≤1250 g, with the diet maintained until approximately 34 weeks PMA. Exclusive human milk is provided through a combination of mother’s own milk and Prolacta instead of a bovine based human milk fortifier. In this study they were able to prospectively track 51 preterm infants of which 33 were AGA and 18 SGA. The first visit (visit 1) was performed at 12–15 months CGA and the second visit (visit 2) was at 18–22 months CGA. The question at hand was whether these children would experience catch up growth at 2 years of age and secondly what their levels of insulin might look like at these times. Higher insulin levels might correlate with levels of insulin resistance with higher levels being needed to maintain euglycemia. As a measure of insuline resistance the authors used the calculation of the Non-fasting homeostatic model of assessment-insulin resistance (HOMA-IR) = (insulin × glucose)/22.5 which has been validated elsewhere. Protein intakes were equal for both groups at about 4 g/kg of human milk protein.
The Results Please
The SGA group had greater weight gain between visit 1 and 2 as evidenced by a significant difference in the change in BMI z-score, AGA −0.21±0.84 vs.SGA 0.25±1.10. I suppose this isn’t too shocking as we know that many babies born SGA experience catch up growth after discharge. What is surprising and once again speaks to the power of breast milk is the impact observed on insulin levels and resistance to the same as measured by the HOMA-IR (AGA babies are the left column and SGA the right).
The adjusted p vlaues for glucose were 0.06 with insulin and HOMA-IR being 0.02. What does this mean? Well, these are not fasting insulin levels which would be ideal but what it does say is that at fairly comparable glucose levels the level of insulin is higher in former AGA babies and the level of insulin resistance lower in the SGA infants! This result is quite the opposite of what previous studies have shown as referenced above. Aren’t these growth restricted infants supposed to have had insulin resistance in utero and been programmed for life to have insulin resistance and as adults develop the metabolic syndrome? This study falls short of making any claims about the latter as these infants are only two years of age. What this study provides though is certainly a raised eyebrow. There will be those of course that look at the size of the study and dismiss it as being too small but at the very least this study will lead to further work in this area. This paper though adds to the mystery around the potential impacts of breast milk and certainly provides strength to the thought that perhaps breastmilk should be the exclusive source of nutrition for preterm infants in the NICU. While I understand that not all women are able to produce enough for their own infants or may choose not to for a variety of reasons, with access to donor milk supply this could become a reality. The cost savings to the health care system by preventing insulin resistance would be many fold greater than the cost of donor milk in the newborn period.
Another intriguing question will be whether use of an exclusive human milk diet with use of only mother’s own milk will have similar effects or even greater impact on glucose homestasis later in life. I think the authors are to be commended for their dedication to work in this field and I certainly look forward to the next publication from this group.
As the saying goes, sometimes less is more. In recent years there has been a move towards this in NICUs as the benefits of family centred care have been shown time and time again. Hi tech and new pharmaceutical products continue to develop but getting back to the basics of skin to skin care for many hours and presence of families as an integral team member have become promoted for their benefits. The fetus is a captive audience and hears the mother’s heart beat and voice after the development of hearing sometime between 24-26 weeks gestational age. This is a normal part of development so it would stand to reason that there could be a benefit to hearing this voice especially after hearing has developed and the fetus has grown accustomed to it. Hospital including my own have developed reading programs for our patients and some companies have developed speakers in isolettes designed to limit the maximum decibel to 45 but allowing parents to make recordings of their voices. Music may be played through these speakers as well but today we will focus on the benefit of voice.
Could reading to your baby reduce apnea of prematurity?
This is the question that Scala M et al sought to answer in their paper Effect of reading to preterm infants on measures of cardiorespiratory stability in the neonatal intensive care unit. This was a small prospective study of the impact of parental reading on cardiorespiratory stability in preterm NICU infants. Eighteen patients were enrolled who were born between 23-31 weeks gestation. The study was carried out when the babies were between 8-56 days old at a mean postnatal age of 30 weeks. Each patient served as their own control by comparing episodes of oxygen desaturation to <85% during pre-reading periods (3 hours and 1 hour before) to during reading and then 1 hour post reading. Parents were asked to read or create a recording lasting a minimum of 15 min but up to 60 min of recorded reading. The parents were offered a standard set of books that had a certain rhythm to the text or could choose their own. Recorded reading was played for infants up to twice per day by the bedside nurse. While it was small in number of patients the authors point out that the total exposure was large with 1934 min of parental bedside reading analyzed (range 30–270 min per infant, mean 123, median 94 min). Patients could be on respiratory support ranging from ventilators to nasal cannulae.
Was it effective?
It certainly was. I should mention though that the authors excluded one patient in the end when it was found that they failed their hearing screen. Arguably, since the infant could not have benefited from the intervention effect this makes sense to me. As shown from table 3 there was a statistical reduction in desaturation events during the reading period which was sustained in terms of a downward trend for one hour after the intervention was completed. In case you are asking was the difference related to oxygen use the answer is no. There was no difference in the amount of oxygen provided to patients. While the events were not eliminated they were certainly reduced. The other point worth mentioning is that there appears to be a difference between live (through open portholes) vs prerecorded reading (through a speaker in the isolette).
Now for a little controversy
Does source of the reading matter? The authors found that maternal had a greater effect than paternal voice. As a father who has read countless books to his children I found this a little off-putting. As a more objective critic though I suppose I can buy the biologic plausibility here. I suspect there is an independent effect of voice having a positive impact on development. If we buy the argument though that the voice that the fetus has most been accustomed to is the mothers, then the findings of an augmented effect of the maternal voice over fathers makes some sense. I will have to put my ego aside for a moment and acknowledge that the effect here could be real.
There will no doubt need to be larger studies done to drill down a number of questions such as what is the ideal type of reading, duration, rhythmic or non etc but this is a great start. I also think this falls into the category of “could this really be a bad thing?”. Even if in the end no benefit is shown to this type of intervention, the potential for family bonding with their preterm infant alone I think is cause for embracing this intervention.
Skin to skin care or kangaroo care is all the rage and I am the first one to offer my support for it. Questions persist though as to whether from a physiological standpoint, babies are more stable in an isolette in a quiet environment or out in the open on their mother or father’s chests. Bornhorst et al expressed caution in their study Skin-to-skin (kangaroo) care, respiratory control, and thermoregulation. In a surprising finding, babies with an average gestational age of 29 weeks were monitored for a number of physiological parameters and found to have more frequent apnea and higher heart rates than when in an isolette. The study was small though and while there were statistical differences in these parameters they may not have had much clinical significance (1.5 to 2.8 per hour for apnea, bradycardia or desaturation events). Furthermore, does an increase in such events translate into any changes in cerebral oxygenation that might in turn have implications for later development? Tough to say based on a study of this magnitude but it certainly does raise some eyebrows.
What if we could look at cerebral oxygenation?
As you might have guessed, that is exactly what has been done by Lorenz L et al in their recent paper Cerebral oxygenation during skin-to-skin care in preterm infants not receiving respiratory support.The goal of this study was to look at 40 preterm infants without any respiratory distress and determine whether cerebral oxygenation (rStO2)was better in their isolette or in skin to skin care (SSC). They allowed each infant to serve as their own control by have three 90 minute periods each including the first thirty minutes as a washout period. Each infant started their monitoring in the isolette then went to SSC then back to the isolette. The primary outcome the power calculation was based on was the difference in rStO2 between SSC and in the isolette. Secondary measures looked at such outcomes as HR, O2 sat, active and quiet sleep percentages, bradycardic events as lastly periods of cerebral hypoxia or hyperoxia. Normal cerebral oxygenation was defined as being between 55 to 85%.
Perhaps its the start of a trend but again the results were a bit surprising showing a better rStO2 when in the isolette (−1.3 (−2.2 to −0.4)%, p<0.01). Other results are summarized in the table below:
Mean difference in outcomes
Difference in mean
% time in quiet sleep
No differences were seen in bradycardic events, apnea, cerebral hypoexmia or hyperoxemia. The authors found that SSC periods in fact failed the “non-inferiority” testing indicating that from a rStO2 standpoint, babies were more stable when not doing SSC! Taking a closer look though one could argue that even if this is true does it really matter? What is the impact on a growing preterm infant if their cerebral oxygenation is 1.3 percentage points on average lower during SSC or if their HR is 5 beats per minute faster? I can’t help but think that this is an example of statistical significance without clinical significance. Nonetheless, if there isn’t a superiority of these parameters it does leave one asking “should we keep at it?”
Benefits of skin to skin care
Important outcomes such as reductions in mortality and improved breastfeeding rates cannot be ignored or the positive effects on family bonding that ensue. Some will argue though that the impacts on mortality certainly may be relevant in developing countries where resources are scarce but would we see the same benefits in developed nations. The authors did find a difference though in this study that I think benefits developing preterm infants across the board no matter which country you are in. That benefit is that of Quiet Sleep (QS). As preterm infants develop they tend to spend more time in QS compared to active sleep (AS). From Doussard- Roossevelt J, “Quiet sleep consists of periods of quiescence with regular respiration and heart rate, and synchronous EEG patterns. Active sleep consists of periods of movement with irregular respiration and heart rate, and desynchronous EEG patterns.” In the above table one sees that the percentage of time in QS was significantly increased compared to AS when in SSC. This is important as neurodevelopment is thought to advance during periods of QS as preterm infants age.
There may be little difference favouring less oxygen extraction during isolette times but maybe that isn’t such a good thing? Could it be that the small statistical difference in oxygen extraction is because the brain is more active in laying down tracks and making connections? Totally speculative on my part but all that extra quiet sleep has got to be good for something.
To answer the question of this post in the title I think the answer is a resounding yes for the more stable infant. What we don’t know at the moment except from anecdotal reports of babies doing better in SSC when really sick is whether on average critically ill babies will be better off in SSC. I suspect the answer is that some will and some won’t. While we like to keep things simple and have a one size fits all answer for most of our questions in the NICU, this one may not be so simple. For now I think we keep promoting SSC for even our sick patients but need to be honest with ourselves and when a patient just isn’t ready for the handling admit it and try again when more stable. For the more stable patient though I think giving more time for neurons to find other neurons and make new connections is a good thing to pursue!
As time goes by, I find myself gravitating to reviews of Canadian research more and more. We have a lot of great research happening in this country of ours and especially when I see an author or two I know personally I find it compelling to review such papers. Today is one of those days as the lead author for a paper is my colleague Dr. Louis here in Winnipeg. Let me put his mind at ease in case he reads this by saying that what follows is not a skewering of the paper he just published using Canadian Neonatal Network data (CNN). Over the last twenty years that I have had the privilege of working in the field of Neonatology we continue to discuss the same things when it comes to the PDA. Does it really cause problems or is it an association for many outcomes? Does treatment make a difference? If you treat then what should you use (ibuprofen, indomethacin, paracetamol)? When should you treat and if you treat early should it be in the first few days or right after birth using a prophylactic approach (provided within 12 hours of delivery)? It is the prophylactic approach which is the subject of this post!
Why treat prophylactically?
The TIPP trial reported the results in 2001 of the study whose goal was to determine if prophylactic indomethacin use could improve neurosensory impairment at 18 months by reducing rates of severe IVH. The results of the study are well known and showed that while the rates of severe IVH and PDA ligations were reduced through this approach, there was no actual effect on long term outcome. The use of this approach fell off after that for many years but recently resurfaced as some units in Canada opted to start the practice again as the two benefits seen above appeared to be worth using the approach. The thought from a family centred approach, was that eliminating the stress for families of informing them their tiny preterm infant had a serious intracranial bleed and potentially avoiding a surgical ligation with probably vocal cord impairment afterwards were good enough outcomes to warrant this practice. Having used this approach myself I have to admit one consequence is that indomethacin was so effective at closing the PDA most of the time that over time one begins to assume the PDA is in fact closed and is less likely to go hunting for one when the baby is misbehaving later on in their course. What if it didn’t close though? Are there any predictors that can increase our index of suspicion?
Answering the question
The CNN provides a large database to look retrospectively to answer such a question. In this article, the authors looked at a period from 2010 to 2015 including all infants < 28 weeks gestational age at birth yielding a very large sample of 7397 infants. Of these 843 or 12% received prophylactic indomethacin and from there a little over half (465) still had a PDA. From there, 367 received treatment with eventually 283 needing only medical, 11 having a PDA ligation and 73 having both medical and surgical closure. From this analysis so far I can tell you that providing prophylactic indomethacin certainly does not guarantee closure!
When a myriad of risk factors were put into logistic regression a number of interesting risk factors arose accounting for more of less risk of a PDA that needed surgical ligation despite prophylactic treatment. Much like all infants in the NICU, the risk for a persistent PDA was highest with declining GA. The combination of outborn status and short interval of ruptured membranes predicted higher risk. No doubt this is reflective of less frequent antenatal steroid use and even if provided time for it to work. Looking at medical or surgical treatment, surfactant therapy increased risk which may be explained by an improvement in oxygenation contributing to increased left to right shunting as PVR drops. Maternal hypertension and longer duration of rupture of membranes again play a role in reducing risk likely through the mechanism of the former increasing endogenous steroid production and the latter again allowing for steroids to be provided.
What can we learn from this paper?
I suppose the biggest benefit here is the realization that even with prophylactic indomethacin we are not assured of closure. In particular if there is a lack of antenatal steroid use or a stressed fetus one should be vigilant for the PDA. Interestingly, all of the risks seem to point towards antenatal steroid use. The bottom line then is that this reinforces what is already known and should be the focus of improvement strategies for centres. Increase the rate of antenatal steroid use and you will reduce the risk of a PDA even in the baby receives prophylactic indomethacin. I am happy to report that our centre has taken one step towards this goal by reinforcing to our Obstetrical colleagues that when they receive a call from a referring centre and have a woman who might be in labour it is better to err on the side of caution and just give the steroid course. If they are wrong on arrival then one can always repeat a course later on as we do although repeated courses of steroids are in and of themselves a contentious issue. What can your centre do to improve your results when it comes to antenatal steroid coverage?