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Meet Saybie, the world’s smallest baby

The foot of a premature baby. (PxHere/Released)

Weighing in at just 8.6 ounces, Saybie is believed to be the smallest baby ever to survive a premature birth.

Sharp HealthCare announced Wednesday that the infant girl was delivered by Caesarean section in December at just 23 weeks gestation after her mother suffered from pre-eclampsia, a life-threatening condition that causes very high blood pressure.

Though the infant was not identified by her real name due to her parents’ desire for privacy — Saybie is the name given her by her medical team — Sharp said that after searching worldwide it could find no lighter baby. The next-lightest recorded birth, according to the “Tiniest Babies Registry” maintained by the University of Iowa, was a minuscule girl born in Germany in 2015. Sharp’s recent diminutive diva edged the girl from Deutchland for the ultra featherweight world title by seven grams.

With babies this small, explained Dr. Paul Wozniak, a neonatologist at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women and Children, the first hurdle is simply making sure they get a chance to breathe. Underdeveloped lungs mean they all need help, so placement of an extra-small breathing tube is essential, but such a delicate procedure often fails over and over again before a precise pair of hands is able to coax the device through the airway to the lungs.

Sometimes, intubation on tiny airways simply fails, contributing to a very high mortality rate among those born too early, Wozniak said.

But for Saybie, the tube went in on the first shot.

Given that she was a full 100 grams smaller than the smallest baby he had ever tried to intubate, and it was necessary to cut down the smallest breathing tube that the hospital had in inventory, Wozniak said feeling that instrument slide into place on the first try verged on the religious.

“When it went right in, oh, my God, it was instant relief,” Wozniak said.

Having a breathing tube in place so quickly allowed quick delivery of surfactant, a chemical that prevents the tightly-packed air sacs in a premature baby’s lungs from sticking together. Use of this chemical is widely credited with significantly reducing the amount of respiratory distress in premature infants, especially in so called “micro-preemies” born before 28 weeks.

As the largest maternity hospital in California, Mary Birch is used to handling plenty of premature babies and many are quite small. But Saybie’s size, she was only nine inches long at birth, required adjustments for the hospital’s level three neonatal intensive care unit. Special blood pressure cuffs were necessary as were particularly microscopic diapers.

At just 245 grams, the scales built into standard NICU beds were thrown for a loop.

“Our beds can’t weigh anything that’s less than 300 grams, so we had to take her out and weigh her on the old-fashioned scale,” Wozniak said.

Anyone who has had a premature baby in a neonatal intensive care unit knows that every ounce of weight gain is cause for celebration. It took Saybie about a month to hit the one-pound mark and a bit longer before her breathing tube could be removed. At first, she received just a single milliliter of breast milk through her feeding tube at a time.

Premature babies are also more susceptible to infection than full-term babies because they spend less time connected to their mother’s blood supply than full-term babies do, providing less chance to receive protective antibodies circulating in mom’s blood.

Though staph infections are common in micro-preemies, Wozniak said Saybie managed to avoid infection throughout her stay. She also managed to stop receiving oxygen before going home and was able to feed on her own for a full month before leaving the hospital.

All of these items, Wozniak said, were quite remarkable.

“Some babies we’ve had in here nine months to a year before they can go home,” he said. “To me, it’s remarkable she didn’t go home on oxygen, because most babies this small will, or with a feeding tube.”

According to a 2015 study, micro-preemies suffer particularly high mortality rates of 30 percent to 50 percent, and severe complications are so common that neonatologists keep a special card on them to refer to when talking about the odds with parents.

“For significant bleeding of the brain, that occurs in 35 percent, and chronic lung disease we see in about 47 percent of these babies,” Wozniak said.

Why was this particular child able to defy such difficult odds so consistently? The physician said it’s a combination of factors.

“It’s good genetics and that’s combined with good luck,” he said.

Now five months old, Saybie weighed five pounds and six ounces when Mary Birch sent her home earlier this month. She increased her birth weight 10-fold with the help of Sharp’s neonatal staff, and nearly doubled her length, reaching 16 inches.


© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.