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Babies Born At Night Risk Greater Chance Of Brain Problems

November 20, 2010

A new study suggests that babies born late at night or in the early hours of the morning may have a slightly higher risk of rare brain problems compared to infants delivered during the day.

Every year, over 10,000 babies are born in the U.S. with a condition known as neonatal encephalopathy.  Over half of these babies will either die or grow up to have problems like cerebral palsy and epilepsy.

Previous studies linked nighttime births with greater risks of poor outcomes, such as death.  Decreased staffing and fatigue among doctors could also be to blame.

Lead researcher Dr. Yvonne W. Wu of the University of California School of Medicine, San Francisco, told Reuters Health in an email that it is unclear whether the timing of the birth might play a role in neonatal encephalopathy.

The researchers studied about 2 million term babies born in California during a 14-year period to see whether the hour, day and month of delivery might impact the risk of the complication.

Overall, the team found that over 2,000 babies, or about 1.1 per 1,000 births, had brain problems.  Sixteen percent of these babies died before they reached 1 month of age.

The researchers report in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology that babies born at night between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. had a 22 percent higher risk than babies who were born during the day.

Boys and children of mothers who were over the age of 35 who had not received prenatal care, or who were giving birth for the first-time, were also at a higher risk. 

Being born during the weekend or in particular months of the year did not change the risk of neonatal encephalopathy.

Wu told Reuters that there are some rare cases in which the cause of neonatal encephalopathy is known, like when the mother has severe bleeding of the placenta or a ruptured uterus. 

“But in most cases, the underlying cause is unclear,” she said.

The researchers could not determine any specific means of prevention, but they did find strategies that may help immediately after a baby is born with the condition.

“Cooling the baby’s body temperature appears to protect the brain, and may lead to better long-term neurologic outcomes,” Wu said.

The team cautions that their study does not prove that being born at night causes neonatal encephalopathy.

Wu said that the condition is extremely rare, and “It is very common for babies to be delivered at night.  And the vast majority of babies born at night will have no complications.”

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