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What is placental insufficiency?

The placenta is the source of all nourishment to the fetus during pregnancy, but what happens when it doesn't perform effectively?

Posted: 25 August 2006
by Laura Lee Davies

Better research has meant that more babies are now able to survive placental insufficiency, but what is it and how can it affect your pregnancy?

What is placental insufficiency?
A baby in the womb is fed via the placenta, an organ which provides food and oxygen for the fetus via the mother's own blood system. However, in rare cases, the vessels carrying the blood, which should grow with the onset of pregnancy, do not seem to change for sufficient blood to get through. This means that some parts of the placenta do not thrive and the fetus is starved of the right amount of 'food' (nutrients) and oxygen, and that toxins are not removed efficiently.

What causes it?
To a greater or lesser extent, it affects three to seven per cent of pregnancies.
It is not easy to pin down one reason why it might happen, though it can be linked to various things, including drug or alcohol abuse, pre-eclampsia, having long-term high blood pressure, infections or poor nutrition of the mother, diabetes or problems with kidney function, having previous low-birthweight babies, going through a multiple pregnancy or Rh incompatibility.

How is the problem detected?
The most reliable way in which doctors can detect placental insufficiency is by using a Doppler ultrasound scan where they can measure the blood flow to the placenta and gauge early on in pregnancy whether there is a problem or not.
At the same time they can check the baby's heart beat for fetal distress.
Doctors may want to check for this condition if the baby is not moving as much as they had expected.

What happens to the baby?
If the problem arises early in pregnancy it can cause developmental problems that have physical or mental effects. The term used is 'intrauterine growth retardation'.
There is a greater risk of the baby dying during birth.

What can be done about it?
There is no direct cure for the condition except to monitor the progress of the pregnancy and possibly opt for caesarian once the doctors believe it is safe to do so.
A woman may be treated for problems believed to have caused the placental insufficiency, or ordered to take bed rest.
Good pre-pregnancy nutrition (including supplements), and maintaining a healthy llifestyle during pregnancy are keenly encouraged.

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