Can ECG be used to predict the risk of stillbirth in women with ICP or gestational diabetes?

Our researchers are developing a new way of studying the heartbeats of unborn babies. This could help doctors spot babies in distress so that they can act early to prevent stillbirth.
  • Author's list

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

    Start date: 2020
    End date: 2023

  • Research centre

  • Research status

    Ongoing projects

Why do we need this research?

In the UK, around 1 in every 250 births ends in stillbirth. 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 of predicting which babies are at risk of stillbirth so that doctors can intervene as soon as possible. 

We know that some health conditions that occur during pregnancy, such as intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP) or gestational diabetes, can sometimes increase the chances of stillbirth. We want to find out more about why this is the case and see if there is a way we can identify the babies that are most at risk. 

What’s happening in this project?

Researchers funded by Tommy’s are developing a new way of looking at a baby’s heartbeat to see if it can be used to spot babies who are in distress. Fetal heartbeats can be measured using electrocardiography, or ECG. This test measures the tiny electrical signals that the heart produces as it pumps blood around the body. It results in a waveform on a computer screen or on paper, which doctors can use to spot problems with the heartbeat. In particular, our researchers are looking at the ECG results of babies of mothers with ICP and gestational diabetes.

So far, the team have found that in severe ICP, the heartbeat of the unborn baby is different to a normal heartbeat. Now, they are investigating whether the shape of these ECG waveforms might provide further clues as to whether a baby is at risk of stillbirth. They believe this might provide more information than simply looking 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 most at risk of stillbirth.

What difference will this project make?

By finding new ways of detecting problems with the baby’s heartbeat, this project could help doctors spot babies who are most at risk of stillbirth as a result of pregnancy complications. This would mean that they can intervene as early as possible to try and stop the baby dying. This test could also be used to reassure women that their baby is not at risk.

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