The transition from life within the womb to life after birth presents the greatest challenge of our lives. For example, at birth, the lungs must be rapidly cleared of the liquid that filled the airways and supported their growth before birth, so that newborns can immediately start using their lungs to breathe. The circulation of the blood must also be immediately redirected, when the umbilical cord is cut and the baby becomes detached from the placenta, so that supply of oxygen and nutrients can meet the changing metabolic demands of the infant’s organs and tissues. Finally, the newborn baby must become capable of feeding, regulating its own temperature, eliminating waste and performing other independent functions necessary for survival and wellbeing.
These monumental challenges faced at birth are sometimes compromised in human babies. Failure often occurs as a result of factors influencing development before birth and events during labour. Premature babies are particularly at risk of failing to transition to newborn life appropriately because of their immaturity and the influence of the events that led them to be born early. The Ritchie Centre team’s aim is to understand why some babies fail to transition effectively at birth and to identify the best ways to support or facilitate the transition in babies that struggle to cope.
Centre scientists are also currently investigating how infection or inflammation within the uterus during pregnancy alters the transition at birth and how common medical interventions aimed at improving survival of premature babies impact on the transition at birth. They are also investigating how to best provide breathing support for babies that struggle to breathe independently, reducing lung injury and achieving optimal oxygen delivery.