Fetal heart rate patterns in term labor vary with sex, gestational age, epidural analgesia, and fetal weight

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 1999 Jan;180(1 Pt 1):181-7. doi: 10.1016/s0002-9378(99)70172-9.


Objectives: Our purpose was to analyze the previously unreported effect of fetal sex on the fetal heart rate in labor and to measure its magnitude in relation to the effects of other independent clinical variables.

Study design: The last hour of the intrapartum heart rates of 1884 term singleton fetuses collected during routine clinical monitoring over 19 months in Oxford, United Kingdom, was analyzed by computerized techniques. The records were selected for completeness and continuity until within at least 30 minutes of delivery. A subset of records from earlier in labor and a separate archive of antepartum normal term records were also examined.

Results: Female fetuses had significantly faster heart rates than male fetuses (P <.0001). Epidural analgesia, weight percentile (adjusted for age and sex), parity, the duration of first and second stages of labor, and a fall in umbilical arterial blood pH at birth also independently modulated the fetal heart rate (all P <.0001). The effects of these independent variables on heart rate were additive, the most important being epidural analgesia as a cause of tachycardia. The effect of fetal sex was less in the first stage, 6 to 7 hours before delivery, and was not present before the onset of labor (in another 552 pregnancies at 37 to 38 weeks).

Conclusions: The fetal heart rate response of female fetuses to normal labor differs from that of male fetuses. Computerized numeric analysis of intrapartum fetal heart rate patterns will need to take into account the multiple factors that influence the fetal heart rate to identify precisely which patterns predict clinical outcome.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anesthesia, Epidural*
  • Body Weight / physiology
  • Female
  • Fetus / anatomy & histology*
  • Gestational Age*
  • Heart Rate, Fetal / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Labor Stage, First / physiology
  • Labor Stage, Second / physiology
  • Labor, Obstetric / physiology*
  • Male
  • Parity / physiology
  • Pregnancy
  • Sex Characteristics*