Necrotizing enterocolitis, also known as NEC, is an intestinal disease that can affect newborns in their first week of life and sometimes even as late as at six months of age.
Babies who develop this condition will exhibit bloody stools, weakness, and lethargy symptoms. If you suspect your baby has this condition, it’s imperative to seek medical help immediately to prevent further complications or death.
This guide will outline what NEC is and everything you need to know about it, including whether it impacts older babies.
What Causes NEC?
Researchers aren’t sure what causes NEC, but they have identified several risk factors for this medical condition.
Premature birth increases your baby’s chances of developing NEC. Neonatal problems that may increase your baby’s risk of developing NEC include lung infections and being born with an intestinal abnormality such as malrotation or volvulus (where loops of the intestine become twisted).
Babies who cannot pass meconium within two days after birth also face increased risks of developing NEC. Some research has found an association between surgery performed before birth and a baby’s NEC diagnosis, although further studies need to be done on possible causes.
Additional factors researchers believe may contribute to a baby’s development of NEC include:
Newborns fed formula have a higher risk of developing NEC than those who are breastfed. Mothers who bottle-feed their babies may inadvertently increase their baby’s risk of contracting this medical ailment if they use larger bottles, which are harder for newborns to suck from, causing them to drink faster and take in more air. The formula also lacks certain nutrients that help boost immunity.
There are many parents whose kids have been diagnosed with NEC. The adverse outcomes tied to NEC appears to be most common in premature babies and those born with heart or digestive problems; it is rare among full-term infants.
NEC can be treated with antibiotics, but some cases prove fatal. Hence, doctors recommend parents feed newborns only breast milk during their first months of life to reduce their chances of contracting this illness from poor quality baby formula.
Infants With Low Birth Weight
Babies born with a low birth weight are at an increased risk for necrotizing enterocolitis. Low birth weight is when a baby weighs under 5-8 pounds, depending on when it’s born.
Since these babies tend to be premature, they’re also at an increased risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis. However, even full-term babies can develop this condition.
If your baby is born with low birth weight, talk to their doctor about steps you can take to lower their risk for NEC and other health problems related to prematurity.
Intrauterine Growth Restriction
Intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) occurs when a fetus doesn’t get enough nutrients from its mother. Although it’s most common in developing countries where malnutrition is rampant, it can also happen to babies born prematurely in developed countries.
IUGR is one of the main causes of premature birth in industrialized nations. Babies with IUGR are more likely to have necrotizing enterocolitis because their intestinal tissue isn’t properly developed.
Who Is at Risk for NEC?
While NEC is a devastating disease that affects newborns, it’s important to note that risk factors are relatively few. According to WebMD, most babies who develop NEC are born prematurely (before 37 weeks of gestation) and have low birth weights (less than 5 pounds).
Other risk factors include malnutrition and infection. Babies with NEC can develop quickly after birth, often within 24 hours, but symptoms may not appear for days. The first sign is likely going to be loose stools or crying. Call your pediatrician immediately if you notice any of these signs in your newborn baby.
Are Older Kids at Risk of Getting NEC?
No, NEC is an infection in premature infants that is more common in those born weighing less than 3-pounds, 4-ounces. So, while most children who develop NEC are preemies, it can happen to full-term infants.
It’s a disease that’s been around for quite some time, even though it wasn’t formally identified until 1972 when doctors noticed a cluster of patients at Stanford Children’s Hospital who were suffering from severe stomach pain, bloating, and diarrhea—and a few of them died from the condition. Since then, advances in treatments and medicine have significantly improved these babies’ chances of survival.
NEC Symptoms to Look Out For
We’ve highlighted some indicators that a baby is suffering from NEC above. These include dehydration and bloody stools, which are common symptoms of something much less serious but should always be checked out immediately by a pediatrician.
NEC Patient Treatment and Prognosis
Untreated NEC can quickly become fatal. Young babies with NEC are often treated with tube feeding and intravenous fluids at first, but surgery is sometimes required to remove part of their intestines.
The mortality rate for severe cases of NEC is 20-30%, though it’s significantly lower if treatment begins early on.
Patients who do not pass away from their NEC may experience long-term physical issues like delayed development and malnutrition. For these reasons, parents who notice signs of NEC should seek medical attention right away.
What Are Possible NEC Complications?
NEC is a serious condition and, in certain cases, can be fatal. The good news is that it’s possible to treat NEC successfully with early diagnosis and treatment. Possible NEC complications include:
- Failure to thrive
- Liver disease
- Intestinal obstruction or perforation
- Sepsis (infection), electrolyte imbalance (low sodium levels), and kidney damage
If your baby has NEC, you’ll need to monitor their health closely for any signs of these complications—and immediately seek medical attention if they occur.
How Is NEC Treated?
While there is no cure for necrotizing enterocolitis, treatments and interventions can help reduce your baby’s symptoms, increase their chances of survival, and prevent future health problems.
While not every case of necrotizing enterocolitis can be prevented, these are some ways you can help minimize your child’s chances of developing NEC. Again, the most important thing you can do as a parent to protect your newborn from necrotizing enterocolitis is to breastfeed exclusively (no formula) for at least six months.
The antibodies in breast milk help protect against infections that may lead to NEC. In addition, breastfeeding helps keep a newborn’s intestinal tract healthy by stimulating intestinal growth and providing good bacteria that supports a healthy digestive system.
How an Attorney Can Help if Your Child Develops NEC
Countless parents who have helplessly watched their children suffer through NEC symptoms have filed lawsuits against formula manufacturers in recent years. They’ve done so in hopes of recovering the compensation necessary to provide them with high-quality medical care that they’re sure to need as they age.
You have a right to hold the producer of the formula your baby consumed liable for their oversight. Our attorneys are familiar with NEC baby formula issues and can help point you in the direction of how to best do that. Initiate contact with us today to get your no-obligation initial consultation scheduled.