Device Offers Hope Of Cutting Stillbirth Rate

A portable foetal heart monitor which has been developed for pregnant women could help to cut the number of stillbirths in Britain, according to the charity that funded the research.

About 3,500 babies are stillborn every year in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics. Stillbirth is often related to risk factors such as a mother’s history of diabetes or high blood pressure, or a previous stillbirth.

Until now there has been no way to monitor the heartbeat of the foetus continuously without admitting the mother to hospital and attaching her to a machine. After 15 years’ work, scientists funded by the charity Action Medical Research have come up with a device the size of a mobile phone which can be worn throughout pregnancy by women in risk categories.

“Potentially it will help save lives of babies and in some cases mothers who are at risk,” said John Crowe, an electronics engineer from Nottingham University involved in the project.

About 70,000 women, a tenth of those who go through pregnancy every year, could benefit from the device, saving money for the NHS and preventing deaths. More than 1.2 million women were admitted to hospital for complications of pregnancy during 2004-05, accounting for 17.5% of all women inpatients.

Hospital-based ultrasound machines can only be used by trained health workers. Designing a portable monitor meant overcoming a difficult technical problem: picking up the foetal heart separately from that of the mother. The new monitor detects and separates the electrical signals from both hearts. It can also determine the position of the foetus in the womb and register the mother’s activity at home. Doctors can pick up problems and decide whether to deliver a baby early.

Margaret Ramsay, a senior lecturer in fetomaternal medicine at the University of Nottingham and Queen’s Medical Centre, who was a clinical adviser on the project, found that mothers with high-risk pregnancies were usually keen to have foetal monitoring but did not want to be bedbound, particularly when they had other young children to care for.

The team found that women were happy with the portable device, which uses electrodes stuck to the woman’s front and back. “Mothers seem to be reassured when they see evidence of their baby’s heartbeat and this can also help with mother-child bonding,” said Dr Crowe.

Action Medical Research, which was previously involved in the development of ultrasound monitoring in hospitals, funded three research projects, including clinical trials, to get the device ready for launch. It is expected to be available in September.