Doppler ultrasound of fetal blood vessels in normal pregnancies

One of the main aims of routine antenatal care is to identify babies who are not thriving in the womb. It is possible that medical interventions might improve outcomes for these babies, if they can be identified. Doppler ultrasound uses sound waves to detect the movement of blood in vessels. It is used in pregnancy to study blood circulation in the baby, uterus and placenta. Using it in high-risk pregnancies, where there is concern about the baby's condition, shows benefits. However, its value as a screening tool in all pregnancies needs to be assessed as there is a possibility of unnecessary interventions and adverse effects. The review of trials of routine Doppler ultrasound of the baby’s vessels in pregnancy identified five studies involving more than 14,000 women and babies. The studies were not of high quality and were all undertaken in the 1990s. There were no improvements identified for either the baby or the mother, though more data would be needed to prove whether it is effective or not for improving outcomes.

Authors' conclusions: 

Existing evidence does not provide conclusive evidence that the use of routine umbilical artery Doppler ultrasound, or combination of umbilical and uterine artery Doppler ultrasound in low-risk or unselected populations benefits either mother or baby. Future studies should be designed to address small changes in perinatal outcome, and should focus on potentially preventable deaths.

Read the full abstract...

One of the main aims of routine antenatal care is to identify the 'at risk' fetus in order to apply clinical interventions which could result in reduced perinatal morbidity and mortality. Doppler ultrasound study of umbilical artery waveforms helps to identify the compromised fetus in 'high-risk' pregnancies and, therefore, deserves assessment as a screening test in 'low-risk' pregnancies.


To assess the effects on obstetric practice and pregnancy outcome of routine fetal and umbilical Doppler ultrasound in unselected and low-risk pregnancies.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group Trials Register (28 February 2015) and reference lists of retrieved studies.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised and quasi-randomised controlled trials of Doppler ultrasound for the investigation of umbilical and fetal vessels waveforms in unselected pregnancies compared with no Doppler ultrasound. Studies where uterine vessels have been assessed together with fetal and umbilical vessels have been included.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently assessed the studies for inclusion, assessed risk of bias and carried out data extraction. In addition to standard meta-analysis, the two primary outcomes and five of the secondary outcomes were assessed using GRADE software and methodology.

Main results: 

We included five trials that recruited 14,624 women, with data analysed for 14,185 women. All trials had adequate allocation concealment, but none had adequate blinding of participants, staff or outcome assessors. Overall and apart from lack of blinding, the risk of bias for the included trials was considered to be low.

Overall, routine fetal and umbilical Doppler ultrasound examination in low-risk or unselected populations did not result in increased antenatal, obstetric and neonatal interventions. There were no group differences noted for the review's primary outcomes of perinatal death and neonatal morbidity. Results for perinatal death were as follows: (average risk ratio (RR) 0.80, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.35 to 1.83; four studies, 11,183 participants). Only one included trial assessed serious neonatal morbidity and found no evidence of group differences (RR 0.99, 95% CI 0.06 to 15.75; one study, 2016 participants).

For the comparison of a single Doppler assessment versus no Doppler, evidence for group differences in perinatal death was detected (RR 0.36, 95% CI 0.13 to 0.99; one study, 3891 participants). However, these results are based on a single trial, and we would recommend caution when interpreting this finding.

There was no evidence of group differences for the outcomes of caesarean section, neonatal intensive care admissions or preterm birth less than 37 weeks.

When the quality of the evidence for the main comparison of 'All Doppler versus no Doppler' was assessed with GRADE software, the outcomes of perinatal death and serious neonatal morbidity data were graded as of low quality. Evidence for the outcome of stillbirth was graded according to regimen subgroups - with a moderate quality rating for stillbirth (fetal/umbilical vessels only) and a low quality rating for stillbirth (fetal/umbilical vessels + uterine artery vessels). Evidence for admission to neonatal intensive care unit was assessed as of moderate quality, and evidence for the outcomes of caesarean section and preterm birth less than 37 weeks was graded as of high quality.

There is no available evidence to assess the effect on substantive long-term outcomes such as childhood neurodevelopment and no data to assess maternal outcomes, particularly maternal satisfaction.