Neonatal Care, 2031: Predict Birth Defects, Empower Parents

Twenty-five years from now, three key factors will shape the future of neonatal care.

The genetic revolution

Technologies that will depict babies' internal organs in microscopic detail

The acknowledgement and inclusion of the power that parents have to heal their desperately ill infants

The genetic revolution will provide the language that physicians will use to understand and predict the problems of infants born prematurely or with life-threatening birth defects.

Before birth, physicians will be able to read the genetic code of infants and direct the interventions required to maintain vital functions, like breathing.

Mistakes in the genetic code will be correctable before birth, and with knowledge of their own genetic codes, parents will understand how to minimize the risk of prematurity and birth defects.

Babies born with life-threatening problems will benefit from imaging methods far more sensitive and less invasive than X-rays. These images will show molecular problems in lungs, intestines, brains and other organs.

To improve the educational capacity of prematurely born babies, particles carrying growth factors will be targeted to the brain to reprogram brain development and ensure that every infant can learn.

These imaging methods will also eliminate the need for taking blood to monitor the health of premature and sick babies -- all vital function monitoring will be noninvasive.

Finally, parents will be recognized as full therapeutic partners in the fight to save babies' lives. Parental touch, voice and smell will be as important therapeutically and diagnostically as medicines and breathing machines. In the hospital, babies will be sheltered in a cocoon that includes parental attention and much less-invasive medical technology.

The combination of high-tech and high-touch will continue to expand the boundaries of hope for the smallest and sickest patients in medicine -- the patients upon whom the hope of the next generation rests.

Dr. F. Sessions Cole is the director of the division of newborn medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine.