Ultrasound at 36 weeks could avoid birth complications

New research suggests that offering an ultrasound scan to pregnant women at 36 weeks could lower the number of breech deliveries and caesareans.

A routine ultrasound at 36 weeks would help detect babies in the breech position, which can lead to complications during labour, according to the study published in journal PLOS Medicine.

When a baby has its bottom or feet facing downwards in the womb, they are in the breech position. The ideal position for birth is head first. Most babies that are breech will naturally turn by about 36 to 37 weeks so that their head is facing downwards in preparation for birth, but sometimes this does not happen. Around three to four babies in 100 remain breech. There are higher risks of complications during birth for babies that are in the breech position, but it’s not always easy for midwives to know which position the baby is in.

The team from the University of Cambridge and the University of East Anglia (UEA) performed ultrasounds at 36 weeks in 3,879 women in England having their first child. They discovered breech presentations in 179 women (4.6%). In more than half of these cases (55%), a breech presentation had not previously been suspected.

The researchers believe that if ultrasound screening could be provided sufficiently inexpensively, for example, by being used during standard midwife appointments, routinely offering ultrasound screening would be worthwhile.

Speaking to the Press Association, Professor Gordon Smith, from the University of Cambridge and chief investigator, said: "We believe the study highlights an opportunity to identify women at increased risk of a complicated birth.

"It seems likely that screening for breech presentation near term could be introduced and this should be considered by the NHS and other health systems."

Professor Basky Thilaganathan, spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said the use of an ultrasound is a quick and safe way to identify the baby's position and this study demonstrates the health benefits of scanning at 36 weeks.

Read the research on screening for breech presentation

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