If a woman goes into labor before her baby is full term, her obstetrician must make a crucial recommendation: delay labor or allow it to continue.
Delivering the baby prematurely may increase the baby’s risk of suffering from neonatal respiratory distress syndrome (RDS), a potentially fatal condition.
University researchers have generated new risk estimates for RDS that allow physicians to make delivery decisions with far greater confidence.
The researchers’ results appeared in the January issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
RDS ranks as the sixth-most common cause of death in newborns in the United States.
The syndrome occurs when newborn lungs have not fully matured and lack the normal coating in the tiny sacs where air is exchanged. RDS causes difficulty breathing and not only threatens survival, but also poses a risk of long-term health effects caused by oxygen deprivation.
Because of the health risks associated with RDS, physicians who must consider delivering a preterm baby estimate lung maturity by testing the amount of lung coating, or surfactant, present in amniotic fluid.
Previous recommendations for RDS prediction listed one surfactant level indicating mature lungs and another lower number indicating immature lungs — but that left a gray zone in the middle that required educated guesswork by physicians.
“Not only was there a gray zone, but when the surfactant tests were designed, they didn’t consider the gestational age of the fetus,” said senior author Ann Gronowski, Ph.D., associate professor of pathology and immunology and of obstetrics and gynecology. “Everyone suspected that the cutoff numbers changed over the weeks of gestation, which meant the old guidelines weren’t adequate.”
So, University researchers set out to create recommendations that took gestational age into account.
“We felt decision-making could be improved by building a statistical model that showed the amount of risk associated with different surfactant levels at each week of gestation,” said Curtis Parvin, Ph.D., associate professor of pathology and immunology and of biostatistics, who designed the study’s statistical model.
The research group combined data from three studies of women and babies whose doctors had administered a test for amniotic surfactant shortly before delivery in a total of 509 cases.
The data showed whether the newborns had RDS and what their gestational age was, as well as surfactant level.
The results of the statistical analysis were arranged into convenient tables and graphs to determine the potential risk of RDS based on both surfactant level and gestational age.
For example, the absolute risk chart the team built shows that at 34 weeks of gestation, a baby with a surfactant level of 20 has a 73 percent risk of RDS, while a baby showing a level of 60 has only a 3 percent risk.
“The old cutoff numbers didn’t provide anywhere near as much information as these figures do,” Parvin said.
Physicians are faced with balancing potential risks to the mom and the baby, Gronowski explained.
“Say the mother has severe hypertension, for example, but it can be controlled,” she said.
“If the surfactant levels and gestational age indicate a high risk of RDS, the doctor can delay delivery. But if our estimates indicate that risk of RDS is relatively low, the doctor can decide to deliver right away to better protect the mother’s health.”