Predicting risk of stillbirth by looking at baby’s heartbeat

Dr Sian Chivers, Mr Paul Seed, Prof Catherine Williamson, Ms Tharni Vasavan, Dr Peter Dixon, CLN research midwives, Dr Caroline Ovadia, Professor William Fifer, Professor Hanns-Ulrich Marschall, Dr Manasi Nandi

Our researchers are developing a new way to study the heartbeats of unborn babies. This could help doctors spot babies in distress so they can act early to prevent stillbirth.

Why do we need this research?

In the UK, around nine babies every day are stillborn. It is one of the most devastating experiences any family can go through. In order to prevent babies dying, we need to find better ways to predict which babies are at risk of stillbirth, so that doctors can intervene as soon as possible.

What’s happening in this project?

Researchers funded by Tommy’s are developing a new way to look at a baby’s heartbeat, to see if it can be used to spot babies who are in distress. Heartbeats are measured using electrocardiography, or ECG. This measures the tiny electrical signals that the heart produces as it pumps blood. It results in a waveform on a computer screen or on paper, which doctors can use to spot problems with the heartbeat.

Our researchers are investigating whether the shape of these ECG waveforms might provide clues as to whether a baby is at risk of stillbirth. They believe this might provide more information than looking simply at the heart rate – the number of beats per minute.

Working with mathematicians, the team will analyse ECG data from unborn babies to look for patterns. They will use this to develop a ‘traffic light’ system to indicate which babies are at the highest risk of stillbirth.

What difference will this project make?

The results from this project could lead to a new way to tell if an unborn baby is having problems which could lead to stillbirth. This would mean that doctors could intervene early to try and stop the baby dying. This test could also be used to reassure doctors and mothers that their baby is not at risk.

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