Blood tests in late pregnancy to identify small babies and those at risk of stillbirth


Placental dysfunction describes when the placenta does not meet the demands of the growing baby; it may result in a baby that is smaller than expected or is stillborn. Currently, it is not easy to detect placental dysfunction before birth; ultrasound scans are most often used to identify small babies. However, tests can measure substances made by the placenta in mothers’ blood and urine which may detect a placenta that is not functioning well. We aimed to find the best test to identify placental dysfunction.

What we did

We searched for studies in October 2016 and identified and total of 24,059 studies - with 91 of those studies providing us with information that we could include in this review. We looked at ultrasound scanning and six different tests of placental substances, including proteins and hormones. These studies involved 175,426 women in total of which 15,471 pregnancies ended in the birth of a small baby and 740 pregnancies which ended in stillbirth.

What we found

Of the 91 included studies, 86 had information on small babies, of which 18 also looked at stillbirth; another five studies only looked at stillbirth. The most accurate test for detecting a small baby was ultrasound scan to estimate a baby’s weight. Of the substances measured in mother’s blood, human placental lactogen (hPL), a hormone produced by the placenta during pregnancy, was the most accurate. There was only one study which looked at both ultrasound scanning and measurement of a placental substance. Placental growth factor (PlGF) was the most accurate test of a placental substance to identify a baby that would be stillborn; there were no studies of ultrasound scanning to detect a baby that would be stillborn. Tests of placental substances were better at identifying a baby at risk of stillbirth than detecting a small baby.

Other important information to consider

Many of the studies included in this review were carried out between 1974 and 2016. Studies of placental substances were mostly carried out before 1991 and after 2013; earlier studies may not reflect developments in test technology. More studies are needed to find out whether a combination of ultrasound scans and mother’s blood tests could improve identification of pregnancies which end in the birth of a small baby or in a stillborn baby. No studies were identified for this review that looked at the accuracy of ultrasound and blood tests used together.

Authors' conclusions: 

Biochemical markers of placental dysfunction used alone have insufficient accuracy to identify pregnancies ending in SGA or stillbirth. Studies combining U and placental biomarkers are needed to determine whether this approach improves diagnostic accuracy over the use of ultrasound estimation of fetal size or biochemical markers of placental dysfunction used alone. Many of the studies included in this review were carried out between 1974 and 2016. Studies of placental substances were mostly carried out before 1991 and after 2013; earlier studies may not reflect developments in test technology.

Read the full abstract...

Stillbirth affects 2.6 million pregnancies worldwide each year. Whilst the majority of cases occur in low- and middle-income countries, stillbirth remains an important clinical issue for high-income countries (HICs) - with both the UK and the USA reporting rates above the mean for HICs. In HICs, the most frequently reported association with stillbirth is placental dysfunction. Placental dysfunction may be evident clinically as fetal growth restriction (FGR) and small-for-dates infants. It can be caused by placental abruption or hypertensive disorders of pregnancy and many other disorders and factors

Placental abnormalities are noted in 11% to 65% of stillbirths. Identification of FGA is difficult in utero. Small-for-gestational age (SGA), as assessed after birth, is the most commonly used surrogate measure for this outcome. The degree of SGA is associated with the likelihood of FGR; 30% of infants with a birthweight < 10th centile are thought to be FGR, while 70% of infants with a birthweight < 3rd centile are thought to be FGR. Critically, SGA is the most significant antenatal risk factor for a stillborn infant. Correct identification of SGA infants is associated with a reduction in the perinatal mortality rate. However, currently used tests, such as measurement of symphysis-fundal height, have a low reported sensitivity and specificity for the identification of SGA infants.


The primary objective was to assess and compare the diagnostic accuracy of ultrasound assessment of fetal growth by estimated fetal weight (EFW) and placental biomarkers alone and in any combination used after 24 weeks of pregnancy in the identification of placental dysfunction as evidenced by either stillbirth, or birth of a SGA infant. Secondary objectives were to investigate the effect of clinical and methodological factors on test performance.

Search strategy: 

We developed full search strategies with no language or date restrictions. The following sources were searched: MEDLINE, MEDLINE In Process and Embase via Ovid, Cochrane (Wiley) CENTRAL, Science Citation Index (Web of Science), CINAHL (EBSCO) with search strategies adapted for each database as required; ISRCTN Registry, UK Clinical Trials Gateway, WHO International Clinical Trials Portal and for ongoing studies; specialist abstract and conference proceeding resources (British Library’s ZETOC and Web of Science Conference Proceedings Citation Index). Search last conducted in Ocober 2016.

Selection criteria: 

We included studies of pregnant women of any age with a gestation of at least 24 weeks if relevant outcomes of pregnancy (live birth/stillbirth; SGA infant) were assessed. Studies were included irrespective of whether pregnant women were deemed to be low or high risk for complications or were of mixed populations (low and high risk). Pregnancies complicated by fetal abnormalities and multi-fetal pregnancies were excluded as they have a higher risk of stillbirth from non-placental causes. With regard to biochemical tests, we included assays performed using any technique and at any threshold used to determine test positivity.

Data collection and analysis: 

We extracted the numbers of true positive, false positive, false negative, and true negative test results from each study. We assessed risk of bias and applicability using the QUADAS-2 tool. Meta-analyses were performed using the hierarchical summary ROC model to estimate and compare test accuracy.

Main results: 

We included 91 studies that evaluated seven tests — blood tests for human placental lactogen (hPL), oestriol, placental growth factor (PlGF) and uric acid, ultrasound EFW and placental grading and urinary oestriol — in a total of 175,426 pregnant women, in which 15,471 pregnancies ended in the birth of a small baby and 740 pregnancies which ended in stillbirth. The quality of included studies was variable with most domains at low risk of bias although 59% of studies were deemed to be of unclear risk of bias for the reference standard domain. Fifty-three per cent of studies were of high concern for applicability due to inclusion of only high- or low-risk women.

Using all available data for SGA (86 studies; 159,490 pregnancies involving 15,471 SGA infants), there was evidence of a difference in accuracy (P < 0.0001) between the seven tests for detecting pregnancies that are SGA at birth. Ultrasound EFW was the most accurate test for detecting SGA at birth with a diagnostic odds ratio (DOR) of 21.3 (95% CI 13.1 to 34.6); hPL was the most accurate biochemical test with a DOR of 4.78 (95% CI 3.21 to 7.13). In a hypothetical cohort of 1000 pregnant women, at the median specificity of 0.88 and median prevalence of 19%, EFW, hPL, oestriol, urinary oestriol, uric acid, PlGF and placental grading will miss 50 (95% CI 32 to 68), 116 (97 to 133), 124 (108 to 137), 127 (95 to 152), 139 (118 to 154), 144 (118 to 161), and 144 (122 to 161) SGA infants, respectively. For the detection of pregnancies ending in stillbirth (21 studies; 100,687 pregnancies involving 740 stillbirths), in an indirect comparison of the four biochemical tests, PlGF was the most accurate test with a DOR of 49.2 (95% CI 12.7 to 191). In a hypothetical cohort of 1000 pregnant women, at the median specificity of 0.78 and median prevalence of 1.7%, PlGF, hPL, urinary oestriol and uric acid will miss 2 (95% CI 0 to 4), 4 (2 to 8), 6 (6 to 7) and 8 (3 to 13) stillbirths, respectively. No studies assessed the accuracy of ultrasound EFW for detection of pregnancy ending in stillbirth.