Hypothermia and its Management in Newborn

Jodibala Haobijam *


The normal newborn continues to adapt to the extra uterine life within the first week after child birth remaining vulnerable to hypothermia. The baby remains dependent on mother for nutrition and protection.

Mother is responsible for maintaining the body temperature of the baby among other functions essential for survival. Due to certain characteristics such little subcutaneous fat, low birth weight babies, exposing the baby to the cold climatic conditions increases risk of hypothermia.

Distribution and incidence

Hypothermia in the newborn occurs throughout the world, often during the cooler seasons, and in regions where there is a large temperature difference between day and night. As similar environmental condition prevails in northeastern regions of India the newborn are at risk of hypothermia.

In a study conducted in Ethiopia, on admission, 67% of low birth weight and high-risk infants admitted to a special care unit were hypothermic. In Nepal, during the winter months, over 80% of the infants born became hypothermic after birth and 50% remained hypothermic at 24 hours.

Many more research evidences are available supporting the role of environmental temperature in the development of hypothermia in newborn.

Hypothermia in newborn

The newborn with a temperature of 36.0-36.4°C (96.8-97.5°F) is under cold stress (mild hypothermia). A baby with a temperature of 32.0-35.9°C (89.6-96.6°F) has moderate hypothermia, while a temperature below 32°C (89.6°F) is considered to be severe hypothermia..

Causes and risk factors

Hypothermia of the newborn is mainly due to lack of knowledge. In many hospitals incorrect care of the baby at birth is the most important factor in causing hypothermia, delivery rooms are not warm enough and the newborn is often left wet and uncovered after delivery.

The newborn is weighed naked and washed soon after birth. The initiation of breast-feeding is frequently delayed for many hours, and the baby is kept in a nursery, apart from the mother. In many newborns these practices will result in hypothermia.

At home, families and Trained Birth Attendants (TBAs) may also not be aware of the importance of drying and wrapping the newborn immediately after birth. Other risk factors include asphyxia, use of anesthetic or analgesic drugs during delivery, infection or other illness of the infant and inadequate measures taken to keep the baby warm before and during transportation.

Signs of hypothermia

An early sign of hypothermia is feet that are cold to the touch. If prolonged leads to hypothermia, the baby becomes less active, suckles poorly, impaired feeding and has a weak cry.

In severely hypothermic babies the face and extremities may develop a bright red colour. The baby becomes lethargic and develops slow, shallow and irregular breathing and a slow heart beat.

Low blood sugar and metabolic acidosis, generalized internal bleeding (especially in the lungs) and respiratory distress may occur. Such a level of hypothermia is very dangerous and unless urgent measures are taken, the baby will die.

Effects of Hypothermia

There is no evidence that hypothermia has any beneficial effect immediately after birth, for example cold stress is not needed at birth, as commonly believed, to initiate or stimulate breathing. Although many traditional practices are beneficial such as heating the delivery room in cold weather, wrapping the baby and keeping it close to the mother.

On the contrary there is sample evidence that hypothermia is harmful. Prolonged hypothermia is linked to impaired growth and may make the newborn more vulnerable to infections, others are harmful such as sprinkling the newborn with cold water to stimulate breathing, bathing the baby soon after birth, delaying breast-feeding in the belief that colostrums is harmful or useless.

Management of hypothermia

Thermal protection of the newborn is the series of measures taken at birth and during the first days of life to ensure that the baby does not become either too cold (hypothermia) and maintains a normal body temperature of 36.5-37.5°C (97.7-99.5°F).

Newborns found to be hypothermic must be rewarmed as soon as possible. It is very important to continue feeding the baby to provide calories and fluid. Breast-feeding should resume as soon as possible.

If the infant is too weak to breast-feed, breast milk can be given by, spoon or cup. It is important to be aware that hypothermia can be a sign of infection. Every hypothermic newborn should therefore be assessed for infection.

Management in Hospital

In hospital a diagnosis of hypothermia is confirmed by measuring the actual body temperature with thermometer.

In cases of mild hypothermia the baby can be rewarmed by skin-to-skin contact, in a warm room (at least 25°C/77°F).

In cases of moderate hypothermia the clothed baby may be rewarmed by the following measures:

  • under a radiant heater;
  • in an incubator, at 35-36°C (95-96.8°F);
  • by using a heated water-filled mattress;
  • in a warm room: the temperature of the room should be 32-34°C/89.6-93.2°F
  • in a warm cot: if it is heated with a hot water bottle, these should be removed before the baby is put in.
  • The rewarming process should be continued until the baby's temperature reaches the normal range.
In cases of severe hypothermia studies suggest that fast rewarming over a few hours is preferable to slow rewarming over several days. Rapid rewarming can be achieved by using a thermostatically-controlled heated mattress set at 37-38°C (98.6-100.4°F) or an air-heated incubator.

The "warm chain" is a set of ten interlinked procedures carried out at birth and during the following hours and days which will minimize the likelihood of hypothermia.
  • The room where the birth occurs must be warm (at least 25°C/77°F) and free from draughts.
  • At birth, the newborn should be immediately dried and covered, before the cord is cut.
  • While it is being dried, it should be on a warm surface such as the mother's chest or abdomen (skin-to-skin contact).
  • If this is not possible, alternative means of preventing heat loss and providing warmth such as wrapping, placing the baby in a warm room or under a radiant heater.
  • Bathing and weighing the baby should be postponed.
Management at home
  • At home, skin-to-skin contact is the best method to rewarm a baby.
  • The room should be warm; the baby should be covered with a warm blanket and be wearing a cap.
  • The mother should continue breast-feeding as normal.
  • If the baby becomes lethargic and refuses to suckle, these are danger signs and it should be taken to hospital
  • While being transported, the baby should be in skin-to-skin contact with the mother during transportation.
  • Refrain from bathing the newborn immediately post delivery.
  • When bathing a neonate wash and dry only a small area of the body at a time, keeping the rest of the infant's body covered.
  • The baby should be dried well and then wrapped.
  • Avoid unnecessary exposure when attending to baby's needs.
  • The mother should keep the baby close to her body to avoid hypothermia.
  • In general, newborns need a much warmer environment than an adult.

* Jodibala Haobijam writes to for the first time. The writer is a Lecturer in Department of Maternal and Child Health at M M College of Nursing, HARYANA. The writer can be contacted at jodibalahaobijam(at)yahoo(dot)co(dot)in
This article was webcasted on November 24, 2008.

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