Air versus oxygen for resuscitation of infants at birth

About 5 to 10% of infants need resuscitation at birth. Many experts recommend that these babies be resuscitated with 100% oxygen, but other experts think that normal room air is as good as or better than 100% oxygen. Too much oxygen can make breathing difficult for babies and can cause other problems such as problems with brain development, an eye condition (retinopathy of prematurity), and a lung condition (bronchopulmonary dysplasia). The authors of this Cochrane review questioned whether resuscitation with room air resulted in fewer deaths or disabilities than 100% oxygen. After searching the literature, they found five studies. There were a total of 1302 infants in these studies; 24% of them were premature. In the studies, fewer babies died when resuscitated with room air than with 100% oxygen. Many of the babies resuscitated with room air also got some oxygen as a supplement, making it difficult to compare the two groups. There were also other problems with the way the studies were carried out. The authors of the Cochrane review concluded that there is not enough evidence to recommend room air over 100% oxygen, or vice versa.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is insufficient evidence at present on which to recommend a policy of using room air over 100% oxygen, or vice versa, for newborn resuscitation. A reduction in mortality has been seen in infants resuscitated with room air, and no evidence of harm has been demonstrated. However, the small number of identified studies and their methodologic limitations dictate caution in interpreting and applying these results. We note the use of back-up 100% oxygen in more than a quarter of infants randomised to room air. Therefore, on the basis of currently available evidence, if one chooses room air as the initial gas for resuscitation, supplementary oxygen should continue to be made available.

Read the full abstract...

100% oxygen is the commonly recommended gas for the resuscitation of infants at birth. There is growing evidence from both animal and human studies that room air is as effective as 100% oxygen and that 100% oxygen may have adverse effects on breathing physiology and cerebral circulation. There is also the theoretical risk of tissue damage due to free oxygen radicals when 100% oxygen is given. The use of room air has, therefore, been suggested as a safer and possibly more effective alternative.


In newborn infants requiring resuscitation, does the use of room air reduce the incidence of death, neurological disability and short term morbidity when compared with the use of 100% oxygen?

Search strategy: 

This included searches of the Oxford Database of Perinatal Trials, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL, The Cochrane Library, Issue 1, 2004) and MEDLINE PubMed 1966 to December 2003, and handsearches of reference lists of relevant articles and conference proceedings.

Selection criteria: 

All randomised and quasi-randomised studies comparing the use of room air or any other concentration of oxygen versus 100% oxygen in the resuscitation of infants at birth.

Data collection and analysis: 

Three authors assessed the methodological quality of eligible trials and extracted data independently. When appropriate, meta-analysis was conducted to provide a pooled estimate of effect. For categorical data the relative risk (RR), risk difference (RD) and number needed to treat (NNT) with 95% confidence intervals (CI) were calculated. Continuous data were analysed using weighted mean difference (WMD).

Main results: 

Five studies were identified which enrolled a total of 1302 infants. In two studies allocation was randomised and the caregivers were blinded to intervention group. In the other three studies, allocation was quasi-randomised and the caregivers were not blinded. Pooled analysis of the four trials reporting effect on death showed a significant reduction in the rate of death in the group resuscitated with room air [typical RR 0.71 (0.54, 0.94), typical RD -0.05 (-0.08, -0.01), NNT 20 (12, 100)]. There were no significant differences between the groups with respect to rates of grade 2 or 3 hypoxic ischaemic encephalopathy. One of the four trials reported a statistically significant difference in median 5 minute Apgar scores, favouring the group allocated to room air. However, the absolute difference between the medians was small and there were no significant differences in the median 10 minute Apgar scores in the three trials reporting this outcome.

One trial followed up a selected subgroup of survivors to 18-24 months. There were no significant differences in rates of adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes including cerebral palsy and failure to achieve various milestones; however, the proportion of eligible patients seen was less than 70%.

Analyses that were planned for this review, but not able to be carried out because of lack of published data, included a sub-analysis stratified by gestational age and assessments of the effect on bronchopulmonary dysplasia and retinopathy of prematurity.