What Is a Nasal Cannula and How Can It Help Care for Preemies?

Nasal Cannulas and How They are Used in Premature Babies

A preemie with a nasal cannula.
A preemie with a nasal cannula.. MichaelDeLeon/Getty Images

Difficulty breathing is one of the most common challenges premature babies face. There are multiple interventions a neonatal care team can use to assist babies in breathing, from ventilator-assisted breathing to continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).

What Is a Nasal Cannula?

Your baby's care providers will carefully consider which type of support best matches his or her needs, with the problem's cause and extent front of mind.

One of the least aggressive interventions, known as a nasal cannula, is used when only a small amount of oxygen is required. In some cases, the air flow of the cannula can help babies with apnea (pauses in their breathing) remember to breathe. In other cases, a cannula is used for long periods of time in the most premature babies, even after they are discharged and at home.

A nasal cannula is a thin, plastic tube that delivers oxygen directly into the nose through two small prongs. It’s used in adult and pediatric patients alike as a type of respiratory support.

What Are the Signs a Premature Baby Might Need a Nasal Cannula?

Regular room air contains 21% oxygen, and the nasal cannulas used in most NICUs can deliver up to pure (100%) oxygen. Without adequate oxygen, a condition called hypoxia can develop. Signs and symptoms of hypoxia, or low oxygen, can include:

  • Increased breathing and heart rate
  • Changes in level of consciousness
  • Restlessness
  • Cyanosis (bluish lips and nailbeds)

How Do Nasal Cannulas Help Care for Premature Babies?

Nasal cannulas are used to deliver oxygen when a low flow, low or medium concentration is required, and the patient is in a stable state. In the NICU, nasal cannulas almost always deliver warmed, humidified oxygen.

The oxygen they deliver can help babies in two ways. First, nasal cannulas provide a small amount of pressure as the oxygen blows into the nose, which can help babies’ lungs to stay inflated and can remind them to breathe. Parents may hear this called “flow” or a certain number of “liters.” Second, they can deliver a higher than normal amount of oxygen to help babies oxygenate their bodies.

When a baby breathes in she gets a mixture of room air and the oxygen from the nasal cannula. The actual oxygen concentration that the baby breathes in is determined by the flow of oxygen through the nasal cannula (lower flow rates deliver less oxygen), the size of the baby (larger babies receive less oxygen into their lungs), and whether or not a special blender is used to mix the oxygen with air.

Some babies who become unsettled with CPAP therapy will tolerate a nasal cannula better. In addition, compared to babies receiving CPAP, those who are given a nasal cannula may have decreased gastric distension, can more easily breast or bottle-feed, and more easily enjoy the benefits of close physical contact with parents.

Continue Reading