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Placental insufficiency

Definition

The placenta is the link between you and your baby. When the placenta does not work as well as it should, your baby can get less oxygen and nutrients from you. As a result, your baby may:

  • Not grow as well
  • Show signs of fetal stress (this means the baby's heart does not work normally)
  • Have a harder time during labor

Alternative Names

Placental dysfunction; Uteroplacental vascular insufficiency; Oligohydramnios

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

The placenta may not work as well due to pregnancy problems or habits in the mother, such as:

  • Diabetes
  • Going past your due date 
  • High blood pressure during pregnancy (called preeclampsia)
  • Medical conditions that increase the mother's chances of blood clots
  • Smoking
  • Taking cocaine or other drugs

Certain medications can also increase the risk of placenta insufficiency.

In some cases, the placenta:

  • May have an abnormal shape
  • May not grow big enough (more likely if you are carrying twins or other multiples)
  • Does not attach correctly to the surface of the womb
  • Breaks away from the surface of the womb or bleeds

Symptoms

A woman with placental insufficiency usually does not have any symptoms.

Signs and tests

The health care provider will measure the size of your growing womb (uterus) at each visit, starting about halfway through your pregnancy.

If your uterus is not growing as expected, a pregnancy ultrasound will be done. This test will measure your baby's size and growth, and assess the size and placement of the placenta.

Other times, problems with the placenta or your baby's growth may be found on a routine ultrasound that is done during your pregnancy.

Either way, your doctor will order tests to check how your baby is doing. The tests may show that your baby is active and healthy, and the amount of amniotic fluid is normal. Or, these tests can show that the baby is having problems.

If there is a problem with the placenta, you and your doctor must decide whether to induce labor.

You may be asked to keep a daily record of how often the baby moves or kicks.

Treatment

The next steps your doctor will take depend on:

  • The results of tests
  • Your due date
  • Other problems that may be present, such as high blood pressure or diabetes

If your pregnancy is less than 37 weeks and the tests show that your baby is not under too much stress, your doctor may decide to wait longer. Sometimes you may need to get increased rest on your side. You will have tests often to make sure your baby is doing well. Treating high blood pressure or diabetes may also help improve the baby's growth.

If your pregnancy is over 37 weeks or tests show your baby is not doing well, your doctor may want to deliver your baby. He or she may induce labor, or you may need a c-section.

Expectations (prognosis)

Problems with the placenta can affect the developing baby's growth. The baby cannot grow and develop normally in the womb if it does not get enough oxygen and nutrients.

When this occurs, it is called intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR). This increases the chances of complications during pregnancy and delivery.

Prevention

Getting prenatal care early in pregnancy will help make sure that the mother is as healthy as possible during the pregnancy.

Smoking, alcohol, and other illicit drugs can interfere with the baby's growth. Avoiding these substances may help prevent placental insufficiency and other pregnancy complications.

References

Baschat AA, Galan HL, Ross MG, Gabbe SG. Intrauterine growth restriction. In: Gabbe SG, Niebyl JR, Simpson JL, eds. Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap.31.

Grivell RM, Wong L, Bhatia V. Regimens of fetal surveillance for impaired fetal growth. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009;(1):CD007113.

Farinelli CK, Wing DA. Abnormal labor and induction of labor. In: Gabbe SG, Niebyl JR, Simpson JL, eds. Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap.14.


Review Date: 8/23/2012
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington; and Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Bellevue, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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