Innovative Approach Raises Hopes For Stillbirth Prevention

Scientists from the University of Ulster, QUB and the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital, Belfast are developing a high-tech mobile foetal surveillance system, which could help prevent stillbirth by alerting doctors when a baby’s life is at risk.

A stillbirth is when a baby dies in the womb or during delivery after 24 weeks of pregnancy – approximately 4,000 babies are stillborn each year in the UK. Many bereaved mothers say that in the days leading up to the stillbirth, the pattern of their baby’s movements seemed to decrease and the baby did not move around or kick as much as usual.

It is believed that careful monitoring of a baby’s movements in the womb could provide an early warning if a baby is at risk of stillbirth. This in turn would alert doctors, enabling them to intervene and possibly save the baby’s life, sparing parents the overwhelming grief that follows a stillbirth.

The research team is led by Dr Stephen Ong - a consultant at the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital with a strong background in studying blood pressure problems and small babies at risk of stillbirth – and includes Dr Joan Condell of the University of Ulster’s Computer Science Research Institute and Dr Fatih Kurugollu of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology Faculty at QUB. Both Dr Condell and Dr Kurugollu have previously carried out extensive research into security surveillance systems and automated video surveillance.

Ultra-sound scans are already widely used to monitor a baby’s movements in the mother’s womb. Dr Condell explains that they are currently developing sophisticated computer programs to analyse the moving images obtained from ultrasound scans to assess the well-being of the baby in the womb.

“The loss of a stillborn baby can be truly heartbreaking. Although some women are known to be more at risk of having a stillborn child because of medical conditions that they suffer during pregnancy such as pre-eclampsia, diabetes and obesity, for many others, the tragic death of their baby comes completely out of the blue and more than half of stillbirths remain unexplained.

“Pregnant women can find it difficult to cope if they know they are at increased risk of having a stillbirth so we urgently need better ways to monitor the well-being of their babies,” says Dr Condell.

She continued: “Researchers are taking ultrasound scans of healthy women, who are five to six months pregnant and recording what they see. Ultrasound scans provide moving pictures of the babies in the womb and researchers are assessing whether it is possible to recognise and analyse the babies’ movements using state-of-the-art computer programs, which incorporate pattern-recognition software.”

Similar software is already in widespread use for other purposes, such as analysing CCTV footage from security surveillance systems and during computer-assisted surgery.

Dr Condell believes their research, which is funded by Action Medical Research is both relevant and practical.

“Around one in 200 babies born in the UK each year is stillborn. Pregnant women who have already experienced a stillbirth, and women who are thought to be at high risk, stand to benefit most from this new surveillance system.  

“While our work is in still at an early stage, ultimately we hope to develop a mobile device, which pregnant women could use while they are up and about. Data from the device could be relayed wirelessly to a computer and monitored by medical staff.”