How does early ultrasound scan estimation of gestational age lead to higher rates of preterm birth?

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2002 Mar;186(3):433-7. doi: 10.1067/mob.2002.120487.


Objective: Early ultrasound scanning estimation of gestational age is known to increase the reported preterm delivery rate (<37 completed weeks) compared with estimation by date of the last normal menstrual period, but it is unclear how this systematic difference arises.

Study design: This study was a hospital-based study of 44,623 women who delivered a live-born or stillborn infant between January 1, 1978, and March 31, 1996, and who had both last normal menstrual period-based and early (usually at 16-18 weeks) ultrasound scan-based gestational age estimates. Cross-classification of the 2 estimates by completed weeks was used to examine the direction and magnitude of the differences between them and to compare the resulting classifications of preterm birth.

Results: The early ultrasound scan-based gestational age distribution was shifted uniformly to the left (ie, lower gestational age) relative to the last normal menstrual period gestational age distribution; the early ultrasound scan-based preterm delivery rate was 9.1%, which was 19.5% (n = 659 births) higher than the 7.6% rate by last normal menstrual period (P <.0001). The last normal menstrual period estimate exceeded the early ultrasound scan estimate far more often than the reverse, up to and including early ultrasound scan estimates of 40 weeks. No concentration of 4-week discrepancies was observed in either direction, as would be expected with random or systematic errors in recall of the last normal menstrual period. The absolute number of births at 37 to 39 weeks of gestation (by last normal menstrual period) that were reclassified as preterm (n = 1206 births) was much higher than the number of preterm births at 34 to 36 weeks of gestation that were reclassified as term (n = 581 births). The net increase of 625 preterm births (from 581 to 1206 births) that resulted from reclassification of births at 37 to 39 last normal menstrual period weeks accounted for 95% of the total 659-birth increase in early ultrasound scan-based preterm births at all last normal menstrual period gestational ages.

Conclusion: Early ultrasound scanning reduces the gestational age estimate across the entire gestational age range; early ultrasound scan-based reclassification of gestational age results in a substantial increase in the prevalence of preterm births. Small downward reclassifications exceed upward reclassifications of similar magnitude, which is consistent with previous reports that delayed (>14 days) ovulation is more frequent than early (<14 days) ovulation.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Birth Rate*
  • Female
  • Gestational Age*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Premature*
  • Menstruation
  • Ovulation
  • Pregnancy
  • Time Factors
  • Ultrasonography, Prenatal*