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Doctors see increase in premature baby survival rates

More of the most premature babies are surviving Credit: ITV News

Doctors in Newcastle believe they have seen an increase in survival rates of the most premature babies.

Over the past five years, the number of babies surviving after being born 23 weeks into pregnancy has doubled from 20% to 40% at the Royal Victoria Infirmary.

Consultant neonatologists say there's been no one medical advancement, but a catalogue of improvements in nursing care has combined to achieve this.

More mothers are now given steroids when they go into labour prematurely. This helps strengthen the baby's lungs.

An intensive care unit Credit: ITV News

The breathing support and nutrition given to premature babies has improved and many changes have been made to the intensive care unit where babies are treated.

Unlike the brightly-lit, noisy wards of the past, the intensive care unit is now dimly lit and quiet.

Incubators are covered over to keep the babies in darkness. Infants wear tiny eye masks to block out the light. Inside the incubators babies lie in specially designed nests to keep them in the foetal position.

All of this is designed to keep their environment as much like the womb as possible, allowing them to continue developing with as little interference as possible.

It gives them better posture, helps with their breathing, keeps their observations, their breathing, their heart rate, their oxygen requirement a bit more stable.

So there's lots of little things that, put together in a package, mean that over the last few years we've seen the survival of babies improve."

– Dr Richard Hearn, Consultant Neonatologist
The RVI is leading the way on premature babies research Credit: ITV News

Around 60,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK each year.

The RVI is leading the way on research into the diseases premature babies are prone to, in a bid to improve their care further.

A biobank has been launched in partnership with Newcastle University and with funding from charity Tiny Lives.

The Great North Neonatal Biobank will create a world-leading resource for scientific research into problems associated with premature birth.

The biobank is unique because it stores samples salvaged from babies and doesn't involve taking anything extra from infants.

It's our attempt to help to move on the science behind understanding the diseases that are most specific to very pre term babies and its unique perspective is that we salvage things from babies that would otherwise go in the bin.

So we keep things like poo and wee that are in a nappy and are going to go in the bin and any left over sample of blood and we store them and can use them hopefully make important discoveries that will change the care that we deliver to the babies and potentially reduce rare diseases in these babies."

– Dr Janet Berrington, Consultant Neonatologist
Inside an intensive care unit Credit: ITV News

Around 100 families are expected to contribute to the biobank every year and many thousands of specimens will be accumulated over the coming years, alongside information about the outcome for each child.

Researchers in Newcastle and outside are able to apply to access these samples.

Up to 1,000 babies are treated in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the RVI each year.

The Unit offers the highest level of intensive care and, as the specialist referral centre for the North East and Cumbria, sees some of the most critically ill babies from all over the region.

The breathing support and nutrition given to premature babies has improved Credit: ITV News

Watch Julia Bathram's full report: