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Ultrasound may spot problems with placenta linked to low birth weight

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New research used "Doppler ultrasound" to look more closely at the resistance of blood vessels within the umbilical cord. Photo by Adobe Stock/HealthDay News

Using ultrasound to measure blood flow in the placenta and the fetus could help spot issues tied to low birth weight, researchers report.

As the Dutch investigators explained, about 10% of fetuses are determined to be "small for gestational age" after ultrasound examination in the womb.

Some underweight newborns do just fine, but others may have a malfunctioning placenta, and that could place them in danger. Often, birth must be induced.

"This means it is incredibly important to track down which babies are smaller due to the placenta," said study lead author Wessel Ganzevoort, an associate professor of obstetrics at Amsterdam UMC.

Of course, ultrasound has long been used to track fetal growth.

However, the new research used "Doppler ultrasound" to look more closely at the resistance of blood vessels within the umbilical cord. According to the researchers, that can give doctors vital clues about the placental health.

The ultrasound also looks at blood flow in the fetal brain. If the blood supply is too high, that could also signal a malfunctioning placenta.

As the researchers explained it, an underperforming placenta can lead to a lack of oxygen to the fetus and other dangers.

Using Doppler ultrasound can help doctors determine if an undersized fetus requires closer monitoring or not, Ganzevoort's team said.

"By adding this Doppler ultrasound to the care plan of these undersized babies, the higher risk of problems surrounding childbirth can be better detected and monitored," he said in a medical center news release. "Small babies for whom the measurement is normal can also be monitored less intensively. There is therefore a greater chance that the delivery will take place naturally, without intervention."

As part of the study, the Dutch team also wanted to see if inducing labor before 37 weeks of labor might improve outcomes for babies thought to be threatened by a malfunctioning placenta.

The team found that early induction did not, in fact, boost outcomes. So, they now believe that it may be healthiest to let a baby benefit from staying in the womb longer.

The research was published Monday in the British Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology.

More information

Find out more about what the placenta does at the Mayo Clinic.

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