Restricted versus liberal oxygen exposure for preventing morbidity and mortality in preterm or low birth weight infants

Restricting oxygen supplementation significantly reduces the rate and severity of vision problems (retinopathy) in premature and low birth weight babies. Babies born either prematurely (before 37 weeks) or with a low birth weight often have breathing problems and need extra oxygen. Oxygen supplementation has provided many benefits for these babies but can cause damage to the eyes (retinopathy) and lungs. The review of trials found that unrestricted oxygen supplementation has these potential adverse effects without any clear benefits. Restricted oxygen significantly reduces these risks. More research is needed to find the best level of oxygen supplementation.

Authors' conclusions: 

The results of this systematic review confirm that (the now historical) policy of unrestricted, unmonitored oxygen therapy has potential harms without clear benefits. However, the question of what is the optimal target range for maintaining blood oxygen levels in preterm/LBW infants was not answered by the data available for inclusion in this review.

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While the use of supplemental oxygen has a long history in neonatal care, resulting in both significant health care benefits and harms, uncertainty remains as to the most appropriate range to target blood oxygen levels in preterm and low birth weight infants. Potential benefits of higher oxygen targeting may include more stable sleep patterns and improved long-term growth and development. However, there may be significant deleterious pulmonary effects and health service use implications resulting from such a policy.


To determine whether targeting ambient oxygen concentration to achieve a lower vs. higher blood oxygen range, or administering restricted vs. liberal supplemental oxygen, effects mortality, retinopathy of prematurity, lung function, growth or development in preterm or low birth weight infants.

Search strategy: 

The standard search strategy of the Neonatal Review Group was used. An additional literature search was conducted of the MEDLINE and CINAHL databases in order to locate any trials in addition to those provided by the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register (CENTRAL/CCTR). Search updated to week two July 2008.

Selection criteria: 

All trials in preterm or low birth weight infants utilising random or quasi-random patient allocation in which ambient oxygen concentrations were targeted to achieve a lower vs. higher blood oxygen range, or restricted vs. liberal oxygen was administered were eligible for inclusion.

Data collection and analysis: 

The methodological quality of the eligible trials was assessed independently by each review author for the degree of selection, performance, attrition and detection bias. Data were extracted and reviewed independently by the each author. Data analysis was conducted according to the standards of the Cochrane Neonatal Review Group.

Main results: 

In the meta-analysis of the five trials included in this review, the restriction of oxygen significantly reduced the incidence and severity of retinopathy of prematurity without unduly increasing death rates The one prospective, multicenter, double-blind, randomized trial investigating lower vs. higher blood oxygen levels from 32 weeks postmenstrual age showed no significant differences in the rates of ROP, mortality or growth and development between the two groups. However, this study did show increased rates of chronic lung disease and home oxygen use.