Optimizing Infant Health

Image of a premature newborn baby in a hospital incubator
Credit: Stock image

NICHD research continues to help improve health outcomes for infants.

In January, NICHD-supported researchers published a study on infant formula and type 1 diabetes. The researchers were looking for ways to avoid the onset of type 1 diabetes in children who are at risk because the disease runs in their families. Previous research has suggested that exposure to complex foreign proteins in the diet, like those in cow’s milk, may increase an infant’s risk for the disease. However, the study found that at-risk newborns who were fed a special hydrolyzed infant formula that lacks complex proteins were not protected from developing type 1 diabetes, compared to at-risk newborns fed regular infant formula (all mothers were still encouraged to breastfeed). Further study is needed to identify effective prevention strategies for infants who are at high risk for type 1 diabetes.

In March, NICHD-supported researchers reported that diuretic therapy—commonly given to extremely preterm infants to help them overcome respiratory problems—appears to offer no benefit for this purpose. Diuretics, which prompt the kidneys to make more urine and subsequently help drain fluid from the lungs of preterm infants, are one of the most commonly prescribed classes of medications in the neonatal intensive care unit—with little research evidence to support the practice. In the study, extremely preterm infants who received the therapy were more likely to require additional respiratory support, compared to infants who did not receive therapy. The finding also suggests that more research is needed to better understand diuretic treatments.

In May, an NICHD-supported study identified genes that are likely associated with congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH) , one of the most common and lethal birth defects. The condition occurs when the diaphragm does not form properly, displacing organs in the stomach and chest. The researchers looked for genetic imbalances that occur when sections of the genome are repeated, and they found six types of repeats associated with CDH. These repeats are located in genes involved in DNA regulation and embryonic organ development. While more work is needed to confirm the roles of these genes in CDH, the study’s framework provides a model that can be applied to the hunt for genetic risk factors for other structural birth defects.

In December, NICHD-supported researchers reported that infants and toddlers may be at higher risk for second- and third-hand smoke exposure than previously reported. While most people are aware of second-hand smoke, which comes from a lit tobacco product, an electronic smoking device, or the smoker, many people don’t know about third-hand smoke—an invisible residue that settles onto floors, furniture, and clothing. The findings also suggest that moving frequently, having more adults in the home, and spending less time in center-based daycare facilities may increase a child’s exposure to smoke or smoke residue.

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