New Australian study aims to teach preterm babies night from day

An Australian research team is working on a study to restore the natural sleep-wake cycle for preterm babies in an effort to improve their health outcomes and get them home sooner.

The researchers from WA hope using patterns of light and dark periods will teach babies to differentiate night from day and restore their circadian rhythm, which is essential to growth and development.

With funding from the Telethon-Perth Children’s Hospital Research Fund grant and led by University of Western Australia reproductive biologist Peter Mark, the team will use tiny blindfolds and ear muffs to simulate the night time environment.

The babies will also be given small doses of cortisol and melatonin, the hormones involved in regulating the circadian rhythm.

The hope is by providing regular light and dark periods the researchers can improve the newborns’ growth, enhance brain development and lead to an earlier hospital discharge.

Establishing circadian rhythm is vital to thrive

Dr Mark says a circadian rhythm starts to develop in-utero late in the third trimester of pregnancy as time-of-day information is transferred from mum to baby.

“In pre-term babies however, exposure to these important maternal circadian signals is cut short by the delivery of the baby,” he says.

“The babies’ chances of establishing circadian rhythm are then further challenged by the continuous noise and bright lighting of the neonatal intensive care units into which they are invariably placed.”

Dr Mark explains that although circadian rhythm is regulated by the hormones cortisol and melatonin, these fluctuate and are influenced by daylight and other environmental factors.

He says past research shows people with disrupted circadian rhythms are at increased risk of obesity, cancer and disease and that mums who do shift-work deliver higher rates of small babies at full-term than mums who don’t.

“Ideally what we’re hoping we can show is that through short-term restoration of the circadian rhythm straight after birth we can improve newborn growth and that this may later prove to be beneficial in the longer-term by reducing the risk of obesity and other diseases,” he said.

The study will begin later this year and involve babies born between 28 and 32 weeks gestation.

(via WA Health)

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