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Neonatal hypothermia is a preventable condition that affects infants as long as 28 days after birth. It occurs when their body temperature drops below 97.7 degrees Fahrenheit (36.5 degrees Celsius). This condition often causes death in newborns in developing nations. Medical practitioners treat hypothermia by warming the baby.
Low birth weight babies are at high risk of developing neonatal hypothermia. Premature babies or infants whose mothers have had multiple previous pregnancies are often underweight at birth. Babies who are born during the winter months or in cold delivery rooms are also at risk.
Underweight infants do not have enough surface fat or brown fat at birth. Brown fat is found around the neck, in the upper chest and armpits as well as in the upper back. Blood that passes through these areas becomes warm, and the warmed blood travels through the rest of the body.
Babies rapidly lose body heat when they are first born. They are exposed to cold air currents as well as cold solid objects such as tables and medical instruments. They also lose heat through evaporation as their amniotic fluid dries. Without adequate brown fat, their bodies are unable to regulate their internal temperature.
The severity of neonatal hypothermia varies depending on the baby's body temperature. Infants who have moderate hypothermia have a body temperature of 89.6-98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (32-36 degrees Celsius). Temperatures below this range indicate severe hypothermia.
Medical practitioners can determine whether a baby is suffering from hypothermia by taking his or her temperature. They also can determine hypothermia by feel. Babies who have warm feet are generally comfortable, but cold torsos and cold feet might indicate neonatal hypothermia.
Babies might also demonstrate other symptoms. They might have difficulty breathing or might seem to lack energy. Some babies refuse to eat, and others do not gain weight like they should.
Untreated hypothermia sometimes leads to serious long-term complications. Babies might develop hypoglycemia, which is low-blood sugar. Some babies suffer from pulmonary hemorrhage, or bleeding from the lungs. Severe hypothermia can cause infant mortality.
Keeping the birthing room warm, drying the baby promptly after delivery, keeping the baby's head covered, and keeping the baby close to the mother will minimize the likelihood of neonatal hypothermia. Babies should not be bathed immediately after birth, particularly if they are born during the winter months. Those who are underweight at birth should not be bathed until they reach a healthy weight.