BACKGROUND; Contradictory findings on the effect of betamethasone versus dexamethasone on antenatal tests of fetal well-being have been reported. The purpose of this study was to compare the effects of these steroid compounds on fetal heart rate patterns and biophysical activities in a prospective. randomized trial.
Study design: Forty-six pregnant women (gestational age range 27-34 weeks) at risk for preterm delivery were randomized to receive betamethasone or dexamethasone for enhancement of fetal lung maturity. Fetal heart rate was recorded for 60 minutes and analyzed with the Sonicaid System 8000 before (0 hours), and 48 hours and 96 hours after steroid administration. Subsequently, fetal limb, body and breathing movements were sonographically observed and quantified for 30 minutes. To account for fetal circadian rhythms, all examinations were performed between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., at least one hour after maternal meals.
Results: Fetal heart rate accelerations (p<0.001; p<0.01), short-term variation (p<0.0001; p<0.05), long-term variation (p<0.01; p=NS), duration of high episodes (p<0.001; p<0.05), total movement count (p<0.001; p<0.05), and duration of breathing time (p<0.0001; p<0.0001) were substantially reduced 48 h after betamethasone and dexamethasone administration, respectively, with percent reduction being larger for the betamethasone group, except for breathing movements (p<0.05; p<0.001; p<0.001; p<0.005; p<0.05; p=NS; respectively). In 68.2%( and 45.5% of fetuses, less than 30 seconds of continuous breathing movements were found in the betamethasone and dexamethasone groups, respectively. In 71.8% and 12.5%, of fetuses, respectively, less than 2 body/limb movements were observed. Therefore five and two fetuses in the betamethasone and dexamethasone study group, respectively, had both nonreactive fetal heart rate monitors for 60 minutes and biophysical profiles of < or =4/10. All parameters returned to baseline values at 96 h. Baseline fetal heart rate and numbers of decelerations remained unchanged (p=NS).
Conclusions: Both betamethasone and dexamethasone induce a profound, albeit transient, suppression of fetal heart rate characteristics and biophysical activities in the preterm fetus. However, the effect of betamethasone is more pronounced. Awareness of these phenomena might prevent unwarranted iatrogenic delivery of preterm fetuses.