Hypoglycemia has to be one of the most common conditions that we screen for or treat in the NICU and moreover in newborn care in general. The Canadian Pediatric Society identifies small for gestational age infants (weight <10th percentile), large for gestational age (LGA; weight > 90th percentile) infants, infants of diabetic mothers (IDMs) and preterm infants as being high risk for hypoglycemia. It is advised then to screen such babies in the absence of symptoms for hypoglycemia 2 hours after birth after a feed has been provided (whether by breast or bottle). I am sure though if you ask just about any practitioner out there, they will tell you a story about a baby with “no risk factors” who had hypoglycemia. These one-off cases have the effect though of making us want to test everyone for fear that we will miss one. If that is the case though should we be recommending that all babies get at least one check?
The Canadian Pediatric Surveillance Program (CPSP)
The CPSP is a branch of the Canadian Pediatric Society that “provides an innovative means to undertake active paediatric surveillance and increase awareness of childhood disorders that are high in disability, morbidity, mortality and economic cost to society, despite their low frequency. I submit my surveys each month as i hope other Canadian Pediatricians do and help to determine the impact of these rare conditions in our Canadian population. Like with any survey we rely on people taking the time to submit but there is always the risk that what is being sent in under represents the true burden of illness as some cases may not be identified. Having said that, it is the best we have!
Turning our attention to hypoglycemia in low risk newborns
From April 2014 to March 2016 the CPSP searched for these types of patients and just published the results of their findings in Hypoglycemia in unmonitored full-term newborns—a surveillance study by Flavin MP et al. What I like about the study is that they have been able to look at a group of babies that fall outside those identified as being at risk in the CPS statement Screening guidelines for newborns at risk for low blood glucose. They were looking for severe hypoglycemia by using a threshold of < 2.0 mmol/L (36 mg/dl) and all infants must have received IV dextrose. In the end after excluding ineligible cases they had 93 babies who met criteria. Based on the Canadian birth rate this translates to an incidence of 1 in every 8378 births. These babies were all supposed to be low risk but there were in fact clues that while not strictly identified as risks in the CPS statement could have increased the likelihood of a low blood glucose. Twenty three percent of mothers had maternal hypertension and another 23% were obese while 47% had excessive weight gain during pregnancy. Furthermore, 8% of mothers were treated with a beta blocker (most likely labetalol I would think) during pregnancy which is a risk factor for hypoglycemia although not specifically cited in the current CPS statement.
A concerning finding as well was the likelihood of severe symptoms in this group on presentation. Twenty percent presented with major clinical signs (seizure, apnea or cyanosis). Median glucose levels at presentation were much lower than those without major signs (median = 0.8 mmol/L, interquartile range [IQR] = 0.5 versus 1.6 mmol/L, IQR = 0.7; P < 0.001). Lastly, providers were asked about neurodevelopmental concerns at discharge approximately 20% were thought to have issues.
Are these patients really low risk though?
Twenty five percent of the patients submitted had a birth weight less than the 10%ile for GA. These patients as per the CPS guideline recommendations are actually considered at risk and should have been screened. The second issue to address has to do with the way we diagnose diabetes in pregnancy. All women are provided with the oral glucose tolerance test around 28 weeks of pregnancy. No test is perfect but it is the best we have. Women who have excessive weight gain in pregnancy (almost 50% of the cohort) are at higher risk of developing diabetes or some degree of insulin resistance as are those who are classified as obese. I have long suspected and think it may be the case here that some babies who do not meet the criteria for screening as their mothers do not have a diagnosis of GDM actually are at risk due to some degree of insulin resistance or perhaps their mothers develop GDM later. The evidence for this are the occasional LGA babies who are born to mothers without a GDM diagnosis but who clearly have been exposed to high insulin levels as they behave like such affected infants with poor feeding and low sugars in the newborn period. The authors here comment on those that were SGA but how many in this cohort were LGA?
The effect of hypertension can also not be minimized which was present in about a quarter of patients. These babies while not being officially SGA may have experienced a deceleration in weight gain in the last few weeks but remained above the 10%ile. These infants would not have the glycogen stores to transition successfully but would not be targeted as being at risk by the current definitions.
Should we be screening everyone then?
If we acknowledge that about 25% were IUGR in this study (<10%ile) and should have been screened, the expected rate would be 1:1170 births alone. In Manitoba with our 17000 births a year we would capture about two extra babies a year which translates into a low of pokes for a lot of healthy babies. Given the further information that 1:5 babies who are identified may have neurodevelopmental concerns it would take about 2-3 years of testing to prevent one concern. That pick up rate for me is far too low to subject so many babies to testing. What this study though does highlight is the need to view risk factors a little less strictly. Babies who are almost meeting the criteria for being LGA or those whose mother’s have taken lebetalol should have a low threshold for screening. Should hypertension on medications, excessive maternal weight gain or obesity in the mother be considered a risk? What I didn’t see in the end of this study were patients who truly were AGA, being born to healthy non overweight mothers presenting as high risk.
Maybe what is really needed based on this study is to re-evaluate what we consider at risk. In the meantime, maybe we should be testing a few extra babies who fall into these “lesser” risk categories. Better yet a study isolating such patients and looking at the frequency of hypoglycemia in these patients is warranted to get a better idea of whether they are indeed risks.