There are a number of approaches available for neonatal research, research involving studies on infants at and shortly after birth. Ethical concerns make options like experimental studies difficult and sometimes impossible, requiring people to design studies in creative ways to get the data they need. Researchers working in this field can include physicians, epidemiologists, and people like sociologists who are interested in the larger social implications of neonatal morbidity and mortality.
Most neonatal research involves observational studies. Instead of setting up experimental conditions to test and explore theories, researchers focus on observing a population of interest. They can recruit subjects from the start by asking parents for permission to use their infants in research, and they can also do retrospective studies. In a retrospective study, medical records and other materials relating to a population, such as infants who die of sudden infant death syndrome or infants with craniofacial defects, are examined after the fact to collect information.
It is also possible to enroll infants in clinical trials, as long as they are carefully designed. People who want to develop new surgeries, medical devices, and other treatments do eventually need to work with human subjects to see if the treatment is effective and identify issues that need to be addressed. In these studies, people recruit patients by discussing the study with their parents. The parents can decide whether they want to extend consent. Use of placebos may be limited on ethical grounds. Parents who choose to participate in this kind of neonatal research may have access to new treatments and receive care for free.
Neonatal research can also involve data collection studies involving interacting with parents and care providers to learn more about quality of life for infants and specific health concerns in a given society. These can include surveys and interviews. This type of neonatal research can be used to support observational studies like reviews of medical records; a researcher might argue, for example, that environmental conditions revealed in a survey have something to do with unusually high or low rates of disease.
As with all medical research, neonatal research cannot be conducted without consent and the participants must be fully informed. Since infants lack the legal capacity to understand and consent to research, their parents are empowered to act on their behalf. One area of particular sensitivity in neonatal research is autopsies on infants. These can provide valuable medical training, as well as offering important information, but people are often reluctant to ask for consent from parents for autopsies. Several studies have actually suggested that parents often consent freely when asked or informed about autopsy availability, not just to further medical research, but to understand the circumstances that led to a neonatal death.