Establishing functional residual capacity in the non-breathing infant

Semin Fetal Neonatal Med. 2013 Dec;18(6):336-43. doi: 10.1016/j.siny.2013.08.011. Epub 2013 Sep 12.


The transition to newborn life critically depends upon lung aeration and the onset of air-breathing, which triggers major cardiovascular changes required for postnatal life, including increases in pulmonary blood flow. Recent imaging studies indicate that lung aeration and functional residual capacity (FRC) recruitment results from inspiratory efforts, which create transpulmonary pressure gradients. During inspiration, these pressure gradients drive airway liquid movement through the conducting and into the distal airways where it crosses the pulmonary epithelium and enters the surrounding tissue. Although this process can occur rapidly (within 3-5 breaths), liquid clearance from lung tissue is much slower, resulting in oedema and increased interstitial tissue pressures, facilitating liquid re-entry into the airways at FRC. Whereas this liquid may be cleared during the next inspiration, liquid re-entry at FRC can be opposed by Na(+) reabsorption, oncotic pressures and expiratory braking manoeuvres. Recognition that transpulmonary pressure gradients mainly drive airway liquid clearance at birth has provided a clearer understanding of how this process may be facilitated in very preterm infants. In particular, it underpins the rationale for providing respiratory support that initially focuses on moving liquid through tubes (airways) rather than air. As the viscosity of liquid is much greater than air, the resistance to moving liquid is ≈ 100 times greater than air, necessitating the use of higher pressures or longer inflation times. Although it is unclear how this strategy could be safely applied clinically, it is clear that end-expiratory pressures are required to create and maintain FRC in preterm infants.

Keywords: Airway liquid clearance; Functional residual capacity; Lung aeration; Positive end-expiratory pressure; Preterm birth; Pulmonary ventilation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Functional Residual Capacity / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Premature
  • Positive-Pressure Respiration / methods*
  • Respiration
  • Respiration, Artificial / methods*