Finding out who’s at risk: how can we predict preterm labour?

Researchers supported by Tommy’s are building a tool for women with symptoms of preterm labour to work out how likely they are to give birth early.
  • Authors list

    Dr Jenny Carter, Paul Seed, Professor Rachel Tribe, Professor Jane Sandall, Professor Andrew Shennan

    Start date: 2015
    End date: 2021

This project took place at our London centre which operated between 1995 and 2021.

Why do we need this research?

Most women who have symptoms that suggest they’ll give birth prematurely – like contractions or pain in their stomach – actually go on to have their baby at full term. Even so, a lot of women are treated ‘just in case’, as the consequences of not doing anything could be devastating.

We want to make it easier to work out which women with symptoms of preterm labour are actually at risk of giving birth early. Being told that treatment is needed can cause stress and worry for parents and treatments may have their own side effects. If we can avoid unnecessary treatment, we can concentrate on giving help to the women who really need it.

What’s happening in this project?

Our researchers have been carrying out the PETRA study in order to find better ways of working out which women are actually going to give birth prematurely; overall, 1,441 women have taken part. By collecting a large range of information about these women – including any risk factors for premature birth, fetal fibronectin test results and cervical length (if measured) – our researchers are creating a tool that will calculate how likely it is that a woman will give birth in the near future.

By looking at preliminary data from some of the women, the team found that the tool was good at predicting the chances of a woman giving birth either before 30 weeks of pregnancy or within a week of testing. The team have now used these results to update the QUIPP app, a smartphone app that has been developed to help doctors decide who is at risk of premature birth. 

In addition to this work, our researchers have conducted interviews with 19 of the women included in the PETRA study in order to find out more about their experiences. Our researchers wanted to know how these women felt about their initial assessment as well as their treatment by healthcare professionals. Common themes that emerged included an uncertainty about their situation and conflicting information and emotions. The women also said that their care and interaction with healthcare professionals both helped and hindered their ability to cope with this stressful experience.

What difference will this project make?

The findings from this study will help us predict whether or not someone with symptoms of preterm labour is likely to give birth soon. The research also explored the experiences of women in this situation and has highlighted ways in which healthcare teams can improve the care and support they provide. Ultimately, this will ensure that women with symptoms of preterm labour get the treatment and support they need.

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