Timing is everything: a reconsideration of fetal growth velocity patterns identifies the importance of individual and sex differences

Am J Hum Biol. Sep-Oct 2003;15(5):667-80. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.10204.


Fetal growth has been posited to follow a "timing hypothesis" sequence in which the second trimester favors a single growth velocity peak in body length and the third trimester accommodates a single growth velocity peak in weight accrual. To our knowledge, this proposition has never been tested with high-frequency longitudinal ultrasound data from normally growing human fetuses. The present study examined whether fetal growth in leg length had its peak velocity at or about 20-26 gestational weeks and declined subsequently and whether estimated fetal weight velocity was maximal at or about 33 weeks and declined subsequently; if the greatest acquisition of leg length occurred in the second trimester and weight in the third trimester; and if birth outcomes reflected these relationships. The data in this study included approximately weekly longitudinal ultrasound data collected from 44 maternal/fetal pairs in Brussels, Belgium. Diaphyseal lengths of the femur and tibia provided information on leg growth and estimated fetal weight was assessed from the biparietal and occipital-frontal head diameters and transverse and anterior-posterior diameters of the abdomen. Growth patterns were investigated from individual growth curves derived from daily growth velocity z-scores. Paired t-tests compared individuals' trimestral increments in leg length and fetal weight. Least-squares regression models employing the robust procedure for repeated measurements were used to test for relationships between trimester, size, growth rates, and birth outcome, controlling for day of measurement, sex, maternal smoking, and gestational age at birth. The normal fetuses in this study grew by pulsatile patterns of leg and estimated weight acquisition, not a single peak and decline process. Greater incremental growth in estimated fetal weight occurred during the second trimester and leg length in the third trimester. Individual and sex effects were significant in growth velocity patterns. Girls grew with greater synchrony between leg and weight growth and were accelerated by comparison with boys, with faster leg growth predicting lower ponderal index by the second trimester. Birth outcomes were sex-specific in timing effects and predictive variables. These results support the importance of sex-specific analyses, reemphasize the common notion that girls grow faster than boys, and direct attention to cross-talk between energy resources and growth.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Body Height / physiology
  • Body Weight / physiology
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development / genetics
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Leg / physiology
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Trimester, Second*
  • Pregnancy Trimester, Third*
  • United States