Antepartum testing consists of a variety of tests performed late in pregnancy to verify fetal well-being, as judged by the baby's heart rate and other characteristics. Antepartum tests include the nonstress test (NST), biophysical profile, and contraction stress test (CST).
Antepartum testing is performed after 32 weeks of pregnancy so that the couple and the doctor can be warned of any problems that may necessitate further testing or immediate delivery. The results reflect the adequacy of blood flow (and oxygen delivery) to the fetus from the placenta.
Antepartum tests are usually done in pregnancies at high risk for fetal complications. Various reasons include:
- any chronic illness in the mother, such as high blood pressure or diabetes
- problems with previous pregnancies, such as stillbirth
- fetal complications, such as intrauterine growth retardation (a slowing of growth of the fetus) or birth defects
- problems in the current pregnancy, including preeclampsia (serious pregnancy-induced high blood pressure), gestational (pregnancy-related) diabetes, premature rupture of the membranes, excessive amniotic fluid (the liquid that surrounds the fetus), vaginal bleeding, or placenta previa (a condition in which the placenta is positioned over the cervix instead of near the top of the uterus)
- twins or other multiple fetuses
One of the most common indications for antepartum testing is post-term pregnancy. A pregnancy should not be allowed to continue past 42 weeks. (The usual pregnancy is 40 weeks in duration). Babies should be monitored with antepartum testing starting at 41 weeks. After 41 weeks, there is an increasing risk that the placenta cannot meet the growing baby's needs for oxygen and nutrition. This may be reflected in decreased movements of the baby, decreased amniotic fluid, and changes in the heart rate pattern of the baby.
The NST and CST use a technique called electronic fetal monitoring to evaluate the heartbeat of the fetus. The biophysical profile is an ultrasound examination.
Amniotic fluid — The liquid that surrounds the baby within the amniotic sac. Because it is composed mostly of fetal urine, a low amount of fluid can indicate inadequate placental blood flow to the fetus.
Deceleration — A decrease in the fetal heart rate that can indicate inadequate blood flow through the placenta.
Oxytocin — A natural hormone that produces uterine contractions.
Ultrasound — A procedure in which high-frequency sound waves are used to create a picture of the baby, used alone or with antepartum tests.
Vibroacoustic stimulation — In the biophysical profile, use of an artificial larynx to produce a loud noise to "awaken" the fetus.
The NST is usually the first antepartum test used to verify fetal well-being. It is based on the principle that when the fetus moves, its heartbeat normally speeds up. The NST assesses fetal health through monitoring accelerations of the heart rate in response to the baby's own movements, i.e., in the absence of stress.
The mother lays down or sits, and an electronic fetal monitor is placed on her abdomen to monitor the fetal heart rate. The doctor records the baby's heartbeat on a graph or "tracing" to determine whether it demonstrates correct reactivity, or acceleration of the heart rate. To record fetal movements on the tracing, the mother presses a button every time she feels the baby move. If the baby is inactive, the mother may be asked to rub her abdomen to "awaken" it. Sometimes an instrument is used to produce a loud noise to arouse the fetus (vibroacoustic stimulation). The test usually takes between 20-45 minutes.
A baby who is receiving enough oxygen should move at least twice in a 20 minute period. The baby's heart rate should increase at least 20 beats per minute for at least 20 seconds during these movements. The NST is the simplest and cheapest antepartum test.
The biophysical profile is an ultrasound exam that can add additional information to the NST. During the biophysical profile, the examiner checks for various characteristics of the baby to evaluate its overall health. These include: fetal movement, fetal tone, breathing movements, and the amniotic fluid volume. Amniotic fluid volume is important because a decreased amount raises the possibility that the baby may be under stress. The five components of the test (NST is also included) are each given a score of 2 for normal (or present), 1 if decreased, and 0 for abnormal. The highest possible score is 10. The "modified" biophysical profile is another option; this includes only the NST and amniotic fluid volume.
The CST is like the NST, except that the fetus is evaluated in response to contractions of the mother's uterus. Because it is a more complicated test, it is often used after an abnormal NST to confirm the results. Uterine contractions produce "stress" in the fetus because they temporarily stop the flow of blood and oxygen. The CST is used to confirm that the fetus does not respond to this stress by a decrease in the heart rate.
The CST is performed with the same equipment as the NST. Maternal blood pressure and fetal heart rate are recorded along with the onset, relative intensity, and duration of any spontaneous contractions. For an accurate test, the contractions should be of sufficient duration and frequency. If uterine activity does not occur naturally, a drug called oxytocin may be given to the mother intravenously (hence the test's alternate name, the oxytocin challenge test) to provoke contractions. Another option is self-stimulation of the mother's nipples, because this releases natural oxytocin. The fetal heart rate is observed until, ideally, three moderate contractions occur within 10 minutes.
The mother should eat just before the antepartum tests to help stimulate fetal activity.
There are no appreciable risks from the NST or the biophysical profile. Ultrasound used for the biophysical profile is painless and safe because it uses no harmful radiation, and no evidence has been found that sound waves cause any adverse effects on the mother or fetus.
The frequency of antepartum testing depends on the reason for its use. All of the tests occasionally give incorrect results, which may prompt an unnecessary early delivery or cesarean. Repeat testing is important to double-check any abnormal findings.
In general, "negative" or normal results on antepartum testing provide reassurance that the baby is healthy and should remain so for perhaps a week, with no need for immediate delivery. Unfortunately, the tests cannot guarantee that there are no problems, because falsely normal results can occur, though this is unusual. Even if all test results are normal, it is important to realize that this does not guarantee a "perfect" baby.
The NST is normal ("reactive") if two or more distinct fetal movements occur in association with appropriate accelerations of the fetal heart rate within 20 minutes. A biophysical profile score of 8-10 is considered reassuring. The CST is normal if the fetus shows no decelerations in heart rate in response to three uterine contractions within 10 minutes.
A "positive" result suggests that the baby is not receiving enough oxygen for some reason. However, it is quite possible that the test result was falsely abnormal. To confirm or monitor a suspected disorder, follow-up testing with the same or an alternate test will probably be performed at least weekly.
The NST is abnormal ("nonreactive") if the fetal heart rate fails to speed up by at least 20 beats per minute at least two times during a 20-minute period. Abnormal decreases in the heart rate (decelerations) are also a cause for concern.
A biophysical profile score of 6 is considered a cause for concern and should be followed by further testing. Scores of 4 or less may require immediate delivery of the fetus.
Abnormal results on the CST include late decelerations, or abnormal slowing of the fetal heart rate after the uterine contractions. This can suggest that the baby is not receiving enough oxygen and may have difficulty withstanding the stress of labor and vaginal delivery. Cesarean section might be necessary so the baby can be spared the stress of labor. With either NST or CST, a severe deceleration (a period of very slow heartbeat) can also suggest fetal distress.
The ultimate outcome will depend on the woman's individual situation. In some cases, delivery can be postponed while medication is given to the mother (e.g., for high blood pressure) or the fetus (e.g., to speed up lung maturity before delivery). Depending upon the readiness of the mother's cervix, the doctor may decide to induce labor. The extra-large fetus of a diabetic woman may require cesarean delivery; severe preeclampsia also may necessitate induction of labor or cesarean section. The doctor will determine the most prudent course of action.
Smith-Levitin, Michelle, Boris Petrikovsky, and Elizabeth P. Schneider. "Practical Guidelines for Antepartum Fetal Surveillance." American Family Physician 56 (November 15, 1997): 1981-1988.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. 409 12th St., S.W., P.O. Box 96920, Washington, DC 20090-6920. http://www.acog.org.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Bldg 31, Room 2A32, MSC 2425, 31 Center Drive, Bethesda, MD 20892-2425. (800) 505-2742. http://www.nichd.nih.gov/sids/sids.htm.