Uncertain value of electronic fetal monitoring in predicting cerebral palsy

N Engl J Med. 1996 Mar 7;334(10):613-8. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199603073341001.


Background: Electronic monitoring of the fetal heart rate is commonly performed, in part to detect hypoxia during delivery that may result in brain injury. It is not know whether specific abnormalities on electronic fetal monitoring are related to the risk of cerebral palsy.

Methods: Among 155,636 children born from 1983 through 1985 in four California counties, we identified singleton infants with birth weights of at least 2500 g who survived to three years of age and had moderate or severe cerebral palsy. The children with cerebral palsy were compared with randomly selected control children with respect to characteristics noted in the birth records.

Results: Seventy-eight of 95 children with cerebral palsy and 300 of 378 controls underwent intrapartum fetal monitoring. Characteristics found to be associated with an increased risk of cerebral palsy were multiple late decelerations in the heart rate, commonly defined as slowing of the heart rate well after the onset of uterine contractions (odds ratio, 3.9; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.7 to 9.3), and decreased beat-to-beat variability of the heart rate (odds ratio, 2.7; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.1 to 5.8); there was no association between the highest or lowest fetal heart rate recorded for each child and the risk of cerebral palsy. Even after adjustment for other risk factors, the association of abnormalities on fetal monitoring with an increased risk of cerebral palsy persisted (adjusted odds ratio, 2.7; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.4 to 5.4). The 21 children with cerebral palsy who had multiple late decelerations or decreased variability in heart rate on fetal monitoring represented only 0.19 percent of singleton infants with birth weights of 2500 g or more who had these fetal-monitoring findings, for a false positive rate of 99.8 percent.

Conclusions: Specific abnormal findings on electronic monitoring of the fetal heart rate were associated with an increased risk of cerebral palsy. However, the false positive rate was extremely high. Since cesarean section is often performed when such abnormalities are noted and is associated with risk to the mother, our findings arouse concern that, if these indications were widely used, many cesarean sections would be performed without benefit and with the potential for harm.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Arrhythmias, Cardiac / diagnosis*
  • Arrhythmias, Cardiac / etiology
  • Cardiotocography*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cerebral Palsy / etiology
  • Cerebral Palsy / physiopathology*
  • False Positive Reactions
  • Female
  • Fetal Diseases / diagnosis
  • Fetal Hypoxia / complications
  • Fetal Hypoxia / diagnosis*
  • Heart Rate, Fetal
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Odds Ratio
  • Pregnancy
  • Random Allocation
  • Risk Factors