Caffeine shown to have long-term benefits for premature babies

Meredith Capp and her 13-year-old twins Sophie and Tilly, who were born 15 weeks premature.
Meredith Capp and her 13-year-old twins Sophie and Tilly, who were born 15 weeks premature.  Photo: Eddie Jim

Few coffee addicts would doubt the merits of their daily dose of caffeine. But here's another reason, it's good for humanity.

For many decades the stimulant has been helping babies as the go-to drug to encourage breathing in infants born very prematurely, by stimulating the brain.

Now fresh Australian research from a longitudinal study has concluded the treatment could also deliver unexpected long-term benefits to infants as they grow up, including better co-ordination as children.

Sophie Capp, who along with her sister Tilly, was born 15 weeks premature.
Sophie Capp, who along with her sister Tilly, was born 15 weeks premature. Photo: Bryan Charlton

The findings stem from a research project that began 17 years ago and saw more than 2000 premature babies born across the globe given caffeine to treat breathing problems or, alternatively, a placebo.

The children given the drug were administered five milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight a day, over about five weeks.

It is a tiny amount, but when considering the pre-term babies had an average weight at birth of about one kilogram, it probably equates to two to three shots of regular coffee when compared to adult weight and consumption.

Researchers based at the Royal Women's Hospital recently assessed 142 children involved in the original study, at age 11, and found some significant long-term benefits stemming from their caffeine treatments.

Only about 20 per cent of the children originally treated with caffeine had reduced air flow rates in their lungs (potentially making them more susceptible to major respiratory problems in the future), compared with 40 per cent in the group not treated with caffeine. That is a 50 per cent improvement.

The findings are significant because pre-term babies could be more prone to emphysema and other types of lung disease later in life.

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Lead author of the research Professor Lex Doyle from the Royal Women's Hospital said people had been using caffeine for 20 years "with no evidence for whether it was safe to use".

"The problem was there were some experimental studies coming out from animals [etc] suggesting that caffeine was bad for your brain. We were worried it was going to cause long-term problems. All we have seen is good."

The original babies in the study include 13-year-old Coburg twins Sophie and Tilly Snowdon.

Sophie weighed 800 grams and Tilly 760 grams, about a quarter the size of an average Australia baby, when they were born 15-weeks early in 2004.

The small, crinkled pair were about the length of a school ruler and, like many premature babies, required assistance to breathe because their tiny lungs had not had time to properly form.

Sophie remained on oxygen for about two months. Their mother Meredith Capp recalls the nurses in the neonatal intensive care unit calmly floating between humidicribs, as warning alarms sounded around them.

"They were attached to these monitors and in the early days they were fairly regularly going off to say they were not getting enough oxygen," Ms Capp said. "It was a place full of drama."

The longitudinal study has also found that caffeine-treated babies have better co-ordination than those who do not receive the treatment. And in the first weeks of life, babies treated with caffeine had a significant lower rate of a form chronic lung disease called bronchopulmonary dysplasia, partially caused by mechanical ventilation and oxygen pumped into the lungs.

Today, Tilly Snowdon shows no signs of breathing difficulties and her sister Sophie has only mild symptoms, having been known to give herself away with loud breathing while playing hide and seek.

"They are active girls. We used to say [they] were the kids that got the extra caffeine because they were almost hyperactive," Ms Capp said.

"You'd look at them now and not be able to tell they got a difficult start."