Why coffee is just what a premature baby needs

The shot of caffeine that peps up adults at the start of the day does the same for premature babies, doctors have found.

Caffeine is known to be a potent respiratory stimulant, increasing the drive to breathe. Experiments on humans and animals have demonstrated that it boosts respiration. It is already commonly prescribed to prevent apnoea - sudden lapses in breathing which can be life threatening - in premature babies.

An international study of more than 2,000 premature babies in Canada, Australia and the UK has found caffeine treatment reduced bronchopulmonary dysplasia (abnormal development of the lungs).

The babies weighed as little as 500g at birth (1lb 2ozs) and were born before their lungs had fully developed. Extremely premature babies frequently have to be ventilated for long periods and may suffer permanent lung damage. This can affect their neurological development, leaving them with brain damage.

Those treated with caffeine required less extra oxygen, suggesting their lungs had suffered less damage. Caffeine is also thought to reduce inflammation and excess fluid in the lungs.