Neonatal hypoglycemia refers to a condition that afflicts newborns who have abnormally low levels of blood glucose. Glucose is an essential sugar obtained from food and broken down in the body to provide cellular energy. Newborns can have hypoglycemia if they not receive enough glucose or their bodies are unable to metabolize sugar due to other disorders. In severe cases of glucose deficiency, a baby may have significant difficulties breathing and feeding. Emergency procedures are often necessary to supplement an infant's sugar intake and regulate glucose levels in the blood.
Many factors can contribute to neonatal hypoglycemia, including hormonal disorders, low birth weight, and congenital heart disease. A baby who is born to a diabetic mother is at an increased risk of hypoglycemia due to unusually high levels of the hormone insulin in the bloodstream. An excess of insulin can rob an infant's body of already low quantities of glucose. Inherited glycogen storage diseases can also result in neonatal hypoglycemia when glycogen, the molecule from which the body derives glucose, is not collected, stored, and processed efficiently enough to supply cells with adequate sugar.
Some babies with mild neonatal hypoglycemia do not show any physical symptoms, and their conditions are only detected during routine screening procedures after birth. An infant with a more severe deficiency may have bluish lips and skin, shallow breathing, and a rapid heartbeat. A baby might not be able to drink breast milk or formula, and he or she may develop tremors, seizures, and hypothermia. Without treatment, chronic hypoglycemia may cause permanent developmental and neurological disorders. Immediate treatment is important to prevent potentially life-threatening complications in all infants with neonatal hypoglycemia, even those who do not display many symptoms.
A neonatal specialist can usually confirm hypoglycemia by analyzing the levels of glucose and insulin in blood samples. Additional screening and imaging tests may be performed to confirm the presence of an underlying problem, such as a glycogen storage disease or an enlarged thyroid gland. After ruling out other possible causes of an infant's symptoms, the specialist can decide on the most appropriate course of treatment.
Infants are usually admitted to intensive care units and given medications to boost their levels of blood glucose. Babies who cannot breathe on their own are placed on mechanical ventilators, and patients who are not able to swallow milk are given feeding tubes. If excessive insulin production cannot be controlled by medications, a newborn may need to undergo surgery to remove part or all of the pancreas. With immediate treatment and several weeks of careful monitoring, most babies are able to recover from their symptoms. Since the condition can return over time, babies and children are often required to take daily medications to prevent future complications.