Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy (HIE) in Babies

May 24, 2023
Janelle Thomas MSN, RN
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Hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy is a medical emergency. If your baby exhibits any symptoms of this condition, they should receive immediate medical attention.

While it is a very serious diagnosis, hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy is also treatable with prompt supportive care. Diagnosing and treating this condition as soon as possible is critical to avoid severe complications and the potential for long-term brain damage.

This guide will help you better understand hypoxic encephalopathy in babies, including the primary causes, symptoms to watch for, treatment options, and how parents and caregivers can meet ongoing care needs. We want to help families and caregivers make informed decisions for the best possible health and well-being of everyone involved.

What is Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy (HIE) in Babies?

Hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) in babies occurs when the brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen and blood before or right after birth. This can potentially result in anoxic brain injury or brain damage and can be life-threatening in the most severe cases. Anoxic brain injuries occur when the brain is deprived of oxygen. HIE can develop during pregnancy, labor and delivery, or right after birth.

HIE affects the central nervous system. Babies diagnosed with this condition have a high risk of neurological and developmental problems.

What causes HIE in babies?

A wide range of causes can cause the brain to be deprived of oxygen and lead to HIE in babies. Major risk factors can include infections during pregnancy, complications during delivery, prolonged labor, umbilical cord problems, maternal hypertension, and the inability of the placenta to deliver nutrients.

Not all cases of HIE in babies have a single and clear cause. In many situations, it can be difficult for doctors to determine the exact cause of the condition. It can often be due to a combination of environmental and inherited factors instead of one primary cause.

HIE Symptoms

Symptoms of HIE in babies to watch for include:

  • Lack of interest in or difficulty with feeding
  • Labored breathing
  • Slow heart rate
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Seizures
  • Low muscle tone
  • Lack of reflexes
  • Diminished awareness or consciousness levels

In the most serious cases, HIE in babies can lead to organ failure or death. This is why it is so important to identify, diagnose, and treat this condition as soon as possible after symptoms and risk factors are spotted.

Diagnosing HIE

HIE is very often noticed and suspected shortly after birth based on the appearance of symptoms. To confirm the diagnosis, providers will typically perform one or more of the following diagnostic steps in the first days of life:

  • Electroencephalography (EEG) to check for brain activity
  • Blood tests
  • Sampling and testing cerebrospinal fluid from the lower spine
  • Umbilical cord and placenta testing
  • Ultrasound of the head, or head ultrasound (HUS)
  • Brain imaging studies, including magnetic resonance imagery (MRI)

Sometimes, the condition may not be diagnosed until later, after complications and developmental problems develop. The earlier that treatment can begin, the better the potential long-term outcome.

Treatment Options for HIE in Babies

Treatment for HIE usually involves initial supportive care, including respiratory support with a ventilator, blood pressure management, and treatment of seizures. Another option in some instances is hypothermia therapy, which involves cooling the body temperature to limit damage to the brain. Therapeutic hypothermia is recognized as safe and uses a machine and cooling blanket to cool the body and reduce the risk of brain injury and long-term developmental issues.

Babies with HIE often need rehabilitation to help regain function and reach critical developmental milestones.

Caring for a Baby with HIE

Parents and caregivers should plan to work closely with a team of providers, including neonatologists, neurologists, and rehabilitation therapists. These care teams help babies receive the best care for their diagnosis. The parents and family members should also receive emotional support and counseling to cope with the challenges of caring for a baby with HIE.

As babies grow, they will continue to need comprehensive care and support. Many families living with HIE turn to pediatric home health services. Caring pediatric home health registered nurses (RNs) or licensed practical nurses (LPNs) can provide customized care plans to fit any family’s and child’s needs. This includes nutritional support, help with rehab exercises, and a wide range of other services.

Contact Care Options for Kids For Pediatric Home Health Care

It can be hard to balance your time between work, home, and caring for a child. That’s why our team of skilled professionals at Care Options for Kids is here to help.

Our home health care services offer support in the comfort of your home. We refer loving and competent nurses to provide customized care for families — from a few hours a day to around-the-clock supervision. Contact us directly to speak with a home health care professional or request a free in-home assessment. Together we can determine the best plan of action to keep your loved ones happy and healthy.

If you are considering pediatric home health care services, contact the caring staff at Care Options for Kids. Call today at (888) 592-5855.